GWEN IFILL: Now, for a different point of view, we turn to our newsmaker interview with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
We talked about the health care rollout, government surveillance, the recent government shutdown, and the battle over the federal budget. I spoke with him this morning at the Capitol.
Senator McConnell, welcome.
As we speak this morning, Kathleen Sebelius is testifying in the House about healthcare.gov. And you have called Obamacare a rolling disaster, but you haven’t called for her to resign. Why not?
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky.: Well, look, I don’t think anybody could make this work.
We said back in 2009, when it was passed, without a single vote to spare, not a single member of my party in the House or Senate voting for it, it couldn’t possibly work. We predicted that insurance — health insurance premiums would go up, jobs would be lost, and the president’s principal promise that, if you had your health insurance and you liked it, you would be able to keep it, none of that would happen.
Regretfully, from the point of view of those who advocated this, the critics were entirely correct. The website may be a good item for late-night comedy, but even if people are able to get on it, one thing you can be sure of is, the choices will not be good, the premiums will be higher.
GWEN IFILL: But back to Secretary Sebelius. She said this morning she should be held accountable. You don’t think accountability involves resignation?
MITCH MCCONNELL: Well, look, she works for the president. The president will make a decision about whether he wants to continue her.
But I think that’s, to some extent, a distraction. The point is, could anybody make it work? I don’t think Albert Einstein could make this thing work. It can’t work. It won’t work. And so I feel sorry for her being put in a position where she’s trying to make something work out that won’t.
I think, sooner or later, they will get the website fixed, but that’s not the real story. The question is, what’s going to be available once you are able to get on a website?
GWEN IFILL: On another topic that is consuming people here on Capitol Hill this week, this idea that we are spying on our allies in some way, is this something that you consider acceptable?
MITCH MCCONNELL: Well I think the Intelligence Committees are looking at that very carefully.
They may well be making recommendations for changes. And I’m going to leave it to the experts. I do think it’s important that we haven’t been attacked again here at home, other than just — the Boston experience I think maybe is an exception to that, but haven’t been attacked again here at home since 9/11 in the way that we were, in the magnitude that we were.
And I think the programs have had some impact on that. So, we need to be careful here in trying to figure out how to reform this and not let our guard down. We don’t need to go back to the time when all the CIA was just a bunch of folks carrying around briefcases. We’re in a — in a new era with a new challenge.
GWEN IFILL: But should there be a line between spying, gathering intelligence, and eavesdropping on the personal phone calls of world leaders?
MITCH MCCONNELL: Well, look, I think we’re going to look at all of that.
I think countries do spy on each other. Friends even spy on each other, shock of shocks. We need to look at all that and make sure that, if any reforms are needed, we engage in them.
GWEN IFILL: Another roiling issue here on Capitol Hill is what’s going to happen to the nomination of Janet Yellen to be the chairwoman of the Fed.
Your seatmate, I believe, in Kentucky, Rand Paul, has said he would like to block that nomination in order to get answers about Benghazi. Do you think that’s a good approach?
MITCH MCCONNELL: Well, one of the things we frequently do in the Senate in order to be able to have input on nominations is, hold them up so you can have a debate and talk about the issues they’d be responsible for if they were to be confirmed.
It’s fairly routine around the Senate for nominations that have some level of controversy about them to be held up, so that there can be a discussion about what you might do if you got the job.
GWEN IFILL: Except, this is not about her. It’s being held up explicitly for an unrelated reason.
MITCH MCCONNELL: Well, every senator does that from time to time. It’s not unusual in the Senate.
GWEN IFILL: And that’s OK by you in this case?
MITCH MCCONNELL: It happens every day in the Senate.
GWEN IFILL: In this particular case, it’s OK?
MITCH MCCONNELL: It happens all the time in the Senate.
GWEN IFILL: OK.
Well, let me ask you another question, then, about the Senate and its behavior lately. It’s not been a quiet time the last month or so. And you have famously said after the last shutdown, there’s no education in the second kick of a mule.
So I have to ask you about the second kick of a mule. What happens when we come back to this argument about debt limits again next year and we come back to this argument about continuing resolutions for the budget? Is there another, a third kick of a mule in the offing here?
MITCH MCCONNELL: No, I — we’re not going to shut the government down. And we’re certainly not going to default.
But it’s an important time to talk about the $17 trillion debt we have run up, about — looking at it another way, we have accumulated more debt during the Obama years than all the presidents from George Washington down to George Bush. This is an alarming statistic, further evidence of the — what we’re leaving behind for the youngest generation.
And, so, when you do something like raise the debt ceiling, it’s not been uncommon going back to the 1950s for there to be significant reforms attached to it. Frequently, that happens with a continuing resolution. We think it’s alarming that America now has a debt that makes us look like a Western European country.
And we think we ought to use these occasions to generate a discussion about it and see what we can get the administration to agree with.
GWEN IFILL: But did Republicans hurt themselves in making the kind of arguments you’re laying out here for the long run because of the shutdown, because of a strategy which was about defunding, delaying Obamacare that you lost?
MITCH MCCONNELL: Well, that was a strategy that obviously wasn’t going to work. I said publicly as early as July it wasn’t going to work. And it didn’t. And that’s why there won’t be another government shutdown.
It’s a strategy that doesn’t work. All Republicans would love to get rid of Obamacare. But it’s important to recognize there’s a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president who think it was a terrific thing. So that isn’t going to happen. It is, however, important, Gwen, when you’re doing something like that, considering a continuing resolution to operate the government or the president’s request to raise the debt ceiling, to see if we can do something important for the country to take us in a different direction.
GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about strategy.
Is there a deal that could be struck between increasing discretionary spending and instituting entitlement reform, savings that way?
MITCH MCCONNELL: There is the possibility for trading sequester relief, in other words, spend more now, for significant entitlement changes, because…
GWEN IFILL: Where is that conversation happening?
MITCH MCCONNELL: Well, it will happen first in the budget conference, led by Paul Ryan and Patty Murray. It’s happened frequently when the speaker and I have engaged with the administration in one of these occasions in the past.
And we will have that discussion again. The problem has been, the administration has been insisting on a massive tax increase as a condition for doing any kind of entitlement reform. My members, both in the House and Senate, don’t believe we have this problem because we tax too little. They believe we have it because we spend too much. And that’s been a pretty significant difference of opinion about how to get at deficit and debt.
GWEN IFILL: Is there a way that you can make your party — obviously, you don’t have the numbers in the Senate — but to make your party what you have described as a consequential minority in the next several months, several years, where it doesn’t seem to be right now?
MITCH MCCONNELL: Oh, I think we are a consequential minority.
GWEN IFILL: Explain to me how.
MITCH MCCONNELL: We control the House, and we have a significant number in the Senate, and an excellent chance of taking the Senate in 2014.
Obamacare, for example, that you and I have just been discussing is going to be, in my view, the largest and most significant issue in the 2014 election. The American people don’t like it. They’re now realizing the consequences of it. They know who’s responsible for it. There’s a clear difference between the two parties on Obamacare. And that’s a debate we intend to have with the American people.
GWEN IFILL: Is there a divide, as is popularly discussed now, between the Tea Party wing of the party and the mainstream wing of the party?
MITCH MCCONNELL: Only on tactics.
On the issues, I think we’re largely united. Take Obamacare, for example. There are no divisions among Republicans on Obamacare. We all think it was a mistake. We all voted against it. And we would all vote to repeal it if we could.
We had a big debate about tactics. And I thought linking opposition to Obamacare to shutting down the government, something people hate even more than Obamacare, wasn’t a smart strategy. And I said so. I’m still saying so. That’s a bad strategy.
But, on the substance, on the merits, I think there’s very little difference — difference of opinion among Republicans about the way we would like to see the country go, the direction we’d like to take.
GWEN IFILL: You — you realize there are still members of your caucus who disagree with you about the tactics and plan to do it again, or at least they say they do?
MITCH MCCONNELL: Well, the majority of this — big majority of my conference thought the tactics were a bad idea and don’t intend to do it again.
GWEN IFILL: OK.
Senator McConnell, thank you so much.
MITCH MCCONNELL: Thank you.