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Tea Party Sen.-Elect Lee Vows to Vote Against Debt Limit Increase

November 8, 2010 at 6:30 PM EST
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Judy Woodruff talks to Sen.-elect Mike Lee of Utah about how Republican congressional leaders will implement ideas from candidates who ran on a Tea Party platform of smaller government and reduced spending.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: a look at how Republican leaders are embracing the enthusiasm and ideas of newly elected lawmakers swept into office on the Tea Party wave.

Come January, if not before, the rhetoric that emboldened the Tea Party movement during the midterm campaign…

RAND PAUL (R-KY), Senator-Elect: We have come to take our government back!

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: … will collide with the reality of governing.

While there’s no official tally of results, the number of winners from last Tuesday who claim some Tea Party backing includes at least five senators and anywhere from 28 to 40 House members, based on news reports. Those candidates elected, on a platform of smaller government, less spending, and lower taxes, will be confronted with decisions about what exactly to cut.

ABC’s Christiane Amanpour pressed Kentucky senator-elect Rand Paul yesterday.

RAND PAUL: But someone has to believe it.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, host, “This Week With Christiane Amanpour”: Give me one specific cut, Senator-elect.

RAND PAUL: All across the board.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: One significant one. No, but you can’t just keep saying all across the board.

RAND PAUL: Well, no, I can, because I’m going to look at every program, every program.

But I would freeze federal hiring. I would maybe reduce federal employees by 10 percent. I would probably reduce their wages by 10 percent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, who supported Paul’s opponent in Kentucky’s GOP primary, was asked about some of the senator-elect’s ideas during an appearance on CBS.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), Minority Leader: Well, he’s going to have an opportunity in the Senate to offer all of those ideas. We will get votes on them. He’s coming here with a lot of enthusiasm and new ideas. And we will be happy to consider them in the Senate. And I’m sure they will be considered in the House as well.

BOB SCHIEFFER, host, “Face The Nation”: Well, I mean, considering them and being for them — are you for those things?

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: Some of those things, I may well be for. I may end up being for all of them. We will have to see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Taking clearer aim at the salaries of federal employees was South Carolina’s Jim DeMint.

DAVID GREGORY, moderator, “Meet The Press”: Which part of the budget, knowing that there’s only 15 percent that’s non-discretionary, or that’s real — non-defense, discretionary part of the budget, what are you going to target for cuts?

SEN. JIM DEMINT (R-S.C.): Well, I don’t think the American people are going to have to sacrifice as much as the government bureaucrats who get paid about twice what the American worker does.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the primaries, DeMint endorsed several Tea Party insurgents over establishment-backed candidates, including in Utah, where he sided against three-term incumbent Bob Bennett. When we spoke to Bennett shortly after he lost his reelection bid last May, he warned that the Tea Party energy would take Republicans only so far.

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT (R-UT): Yes, we benefit from the sense of anger and the sense of helplessness and disenfranchisement that this movement demonstrates. But we must recognize that anger is not a sound strategy for governing, and that, once you are in office, you have to have some solutions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Exit polls last week showed 40 percent of voters expressed some level of support for the Tea Party, a sign the movement and its agenda has some wind at its back.

Republican senator-elect Mike Lee ran as a Tea Party candidate in Utah, and he joins us now from Salt Lake City. First of all, congratulations.

MIKE LEE (R-UT), senator-elect: Thank you. It’s good to be with you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you. My first question is, how will you be able to work with Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, since he was working for your opponent in the Republican primary?

MIKE LEE: Well, you know, there are a lot of people who will be coming together, notwithstanding the fact that they might have been on different sides of different races.

And I certainly have no problem with that. I’m sure that Leader McConnell doesn’t either. Look forward to working with him. We agree, as Republicans, on lots and lots of issues, including the issues that are most important to the Tea Party, like the fact that the federal government is too big and too expensive.

There are few, if any, Republicans who will disagree with that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, your office was telling us today, senator-elect Lee, that one of your top priorities is an amendment to the United States Constitution to balance the budget. How soon would you like to see that happen?

MIKE LEE: Well, I think it needs to happen in 2011, in the first year of the soon-to-be-created Congress, because I think we need a framework from which to start this idea that says we need to stop mortgaging the future of unborn generations of Americans.

You know, it’s a form of taxation without representation, when we incur debt to the tune of trillions of dollars. You know, we have a national debt that right now sits at a level approaching $14 trillion. Within about a year’s time, at the current rate, we will be at a $15 trillion debt, $50,000 per person just on a per capita basis.

That’s a lot of money, a lot of money that’s going to have to be paid back by people, some of whom aren’t even born yet. And, so, we need an amendment to the Constitution that says Congress, subject to very rare, limited circumstances, has to pass a balanced budget every year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, to get to that, you told a town hall meeting, I read, in Utah just a few weeks ago that the federal budget might have to be cut as much as 40 percent. Were you serious about that?

MIKE LEE: Well, that’s not exactly what I said.

What I was talking about was the fact that we need to look at a bunch of different formulas to try to figure out how to balance the budget. I suggested, in hypothetical terms, that that’s one approach we could take, is go through and come up with a hypothetical budget from each department, each federal program, figure out what it would look like if it were cut by that amount, and then figure out what we could tolerate.

Another approach would be to go back just a few years, say, examine the budget as recently as 2004, and figure out how that could be made to work today, just a few years later. If we had a budget in place like that today, we could balance it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I ask you because, as you know very well, 60 percent of the budget, defense, Social Security, Medicare, and if you walled that off — and you have suggested you would wall that largely off — all you’re left with are veterans benefits, retirement benefits. You’re left with safe food and drugs, protecting the environment, education, medical research, and a lot of issues — a lot of items that people think are essential for the federal government.

So, I guess my question is, what would you cut?

MIKE LEE: Well, again, that’s going to be one of the questions that we’re confronting.

What we’re addressing right now is the need for a balanced budget amendment that will require Congress to do this. Look, you have a lot of senators and a lot of representatives in both political parties who want a balanced budget. We’re not always going to agree on where we cut or where we cut first.

But if we first agree on the need to balance it and on the fact that we need to amend the Constitution to require us to do so, we will get somewhere. And I think we could get there by doing, among other things, a retrospective look at past budgets, say, as recently as 2004, and say, look, if that could work just a few years ago, why couldn’t that work today?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And where would you — for example, some of your new incoming colleagues have said they want to look at cutting federal government salaries. They want to look at cutting out the Department of Education, cutting out a number of other things. Are there any specifics you can give us?

MIKE LEE: Well, yes. I would like to see a cut with the Department of Education.

Look, our education system in the United States of America functions best when decisions affecting the classroom are made as close to the classroom as possible, when they’re made by teachers, by principals, by parents, and by state and local government and educational officials, not from Washington, D.C.

And that’s one area where we could cut and we could save a lot of money. We could save about $50 billion a year doing that. Of course, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what we would need to cut if we were to balance the budget. And that’s I say we’re going to have to look at across-the-board cuts, the likes of which we could discern perhaps by looking back to a budget as recent as the 2004 budget.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, one of the decisions Congress is going to be making early in the new year is raising the debt ceiling. And I believe you have said you would vote against that. And my question is, even if it means shutting down the federal government, which is what’s happened in the past when Congress hasn’t supported that?

MIKE LEE: I would vote against raising the national debt ceiling. Again, this is about mortgaging the future of unborn generations of Americans. It’s a form of taxation without representation. I don’t think we can do that.

Now, I think there are alternatives out there that we could use in order to avoid a government shutdown. I don’t want a government shutdown. I don’t think anyone does. I would like to see some form of continuing resolution that would allow spending to continue at current levels.

But, if we had to do that in a way that enabled us to avoid having to raise the national debt ceiling, we might have to consider across-the-board cuts being built into the automatic continuing resolution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, again…

MIKE LEE: I would, however, vote against raising the national debt ceiling.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, again, across-the-board, no specifics?

MIKE LEE: Correct, across-the-board.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — and — and, in terms of the Bush era tax cuts, you have indicated you’re in favor of extending those permanently.

The estimate is, that would cost something like, what, $4 trillion over the next 10 years. How would you pay for that?

MIKE LEE: Well, in the first place, I think it’s important that, when we ask that question, we not look at it in terms of a cost. This isn’t money that belongs to the government. This is money that belongs to the people, the people who earn it, the people who are paying their taxes.

So, we can’t look at this from the perspective, the same perspective as we would if we were talking about a government program that we were trying to create. This is money that belongs to the American people, to the same people who earn it, the same people who are paying taxes.

We have been operating our government based on those tax cuts, but we have been operating at a rate that is far in excess of what we’re bringing in. So, again, we have to look at across-the-board cuts, the same kind of cuts that we would look to if, all of a sudden, we had to pull out the 2004 budget and make it stick right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we’re going to leave it there. Senator-elect Mike Lee from Utah, thank you for joining us. And, again, congratulations.

MIKE LEE: Thank you.