Newsmaker: Representative Dick Gephardt
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JIM LEHRER: The Democrats elected their leadership today for the 105th Congress that convenes in January. Richard Gephardt was again chosen for the top job, minority leader. We’ll talk to him right after this report on today’s election by Kwame Holman.
KWAME HOLMAN: This morning, Richard Gephardt met with his staff to walk through procedures for the House Democratic elections to be held later in the day. The results were a foregone conclusion.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT(preparing for the vote): And then you get up and give a speech. Are we actually having a vote count?
KWAME HOLMAN: While the Democrats failed to regain control of the House during the recent election, members did not see any reason to make changes in their leadership.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT, Minority Leader: Everybody is on the same page. Everybody is excited. Everybody is positive about what we’re doing and how we’re going to accomplish it in the next few weeks and months.
KWAME HOLMAN: Representative David Bonior of Michigan once again will be the whip, the No. 2 Democrat in the House. Vic Fazio of California and Barbara Kennelly of Connecticut will be chairman and vice chair of the Democratic caucus, and Martin Frost of Texas will head the party’s congressional campaign committee.
REP. DAVID BONIOR, Minority Whip: We’re raring to get back to work and to develop the coalitions that are necessary to pass the agendas that are important to the American people, working families in this country.
KWAME HOLMAN: For Gephardt, it’s his second term as House Democratic Leader. Two years ago, when Republicans took control of the House, Gephardt faced a leadership challenge from conservatives in the Democratic Party, but this year there were no such challenges.
REP. RALPH HALL, (D) Texas: We think it’s to the party’s leadership advantage that we be part of the makeup of the inner sanction of the Democratic Party here, and we’re trying to pull it back toward the middle.
I think that we have liberal leadership in the Democratic Party. I don’t think there’s any question about that. And I think they’re more sensible than they have been. You know, toward the end of the last session, they coalesced better. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have gotten anything done. We’d still be here trying to shut that session down. But I think they started a trend when they saw how sick the people were of the government shutdowns and the bickering, the House to the Senate and the Senate to the House, and both of them to the President, and the President to both of them. I think they want us to get together and work together, and I think this Congress started doing that in the last six weeks of this last session.
KWAME HOLMAN: But with the addition of at least eight new members, Gephardt and the Democrats now are in a stronger position to challenge the Republican majority in the new 105th Congress.
JIM LEHRER: Now from Capitol Hill, Rep. Richard Gephardt, Democrat of Missouri, the House Minority Leader.
Mr. Leader, welcome.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT, Minority Leader: Thank you. Good to be with you, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: And, congratulations.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: How do you see the mission of your Democratic minority in this new Congress.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, first I think it’s to try to agree with the majority where we can to try to find consensus, to try to reach out for bipartisan solutions. That doesn’t mean we give up what we believe in, what we think is the very important things we have to do in the country, but it does mean try to compromise, try to find consensus. We also have an agenda we put out earlier this year that we feel very strongly about we call “Families First.” It’s modest, it’s practical, it’s the kind of thing I think this Congress could do if we could reach bipartisan solutions.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see–you and your Democratic colleagues in the House as an extension of the Democratic President and what he wants done?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, obviously, we agree with the President on a lot of his priorities, and we’ve worked well with him. That doesn’t mean like in any party or any group of people you have absolute agreement on every issue. There are times when we will disagree as well. But we will try to work with him. We hope the Republicans will try to work with him as well to move the country forward. What we all heard over and over again in the election from our people was get down to work, solve the problems that are in front of the country, try to reach consensus, if you can, stop the partisan haggling, if at all possible, and move forward.
JIM LEHRER: And other people have interpreted the message from the election as also–they wanted–what you just said–they also wanted to move to a central point.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Right.
JIM LEHRER: And the President has said that himself. Is that going to be a problem for some of your liberal Democratic colleagues?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, Jim, in fact, I would say to you that the Democratic Party has been in the center for the last two years. We were ready for two years to make a consensus agreement on the budget. And I feel the budgets our side came up with were consensus budgets. Our so-called moderate Democrat group, the Blue Dogs, or the Coalition, whatever you want to call it, had really set out most of the budget priorities for the Democratic Party. The same with the minimum wage, the same with health insurance reform.
So I feel we’ve been in the center all along. I feel the Republicans were much more extreme, and the leadership got lockstep voting out of the Republicans to keep them over on the right and unwilling to come to the center to make an agreement with us. We’re in the center. We’re there. we’re going to stay there, and if they will come there, or at least some moderate Republicans will come there, we can get a lot of things done.
JIM LEHRER: But what about the liberal Democrats over here on the left who are not Blue Dog? The Blue Dog Democrats are the conservative to moderate members of your party, but there are a lot of non-Blue Dogs up there in your minority as well. What about them?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, in the last go-round on the budget, we had well over 120. I don’t remember the exact number, but we had a substantial number of Democrats, including some liberal Democrats, who voted for the Blue Dog coalition budget. What we didn’t have were any moderate Republicans coming to try to form a coalition in the center that would get the thing done.
That’s what President Clinton tried to do and was unable to do, because, again, the Republicans participated in lockstep voting. They said, we’ve got to have the big tax cut for the wealthy, paid for by big cuts in Medicare, education, and the environment. The President said we’re not going to do that. Most Democrats said we’re not going to do that. So we were never able to get them into the center. What you’ve got to look at here is, did the election cause enough change of mind of moderate and other Republicans to bring enough of them to the center that we can begin to operate with a centrist coalition?
JIM LEHRER: Now, you mentioned your agenda, your “Family First” program. Now, is there going to be a House Democratic agenda in addition to a President’s agenda? I mean, how are you going to work that out? What’s going to be controlling your agenda up there–your own, or what the President wants?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, if you look closely at our “Families First” agenda, much of it was talked about by the President in different ways through the last year. The $10,000 deduction for tuition, for education and training, the $1500 credit so that everyone could at least go to community college without having to have a lot of money, making pensions portable, and making sure that IRA’s, Individual Retirement Accounts, are expanded so more people could get into IRA’s–things like adding 25,000 more community police to the 100,000 we’re trying to get on the streets now–these are the kind of practical things that we tried to do that the President also talked about. There are a few things on our agenda that he did not suggest, but there’s nothing there that I would not think he would agree with. So I don’t see any great problem in getting an agreement, an essential agreement on moving many of these things forward between the President and Democrats in the Congress, and hopefully moderate Republicans as well. We wrote this agenda so it could get Republican votes.
JIM LEHRER: The President has suggested, as well as a lot of others, that the No. 1 agenda item for you and your colleagues in Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, both House and Senate, should be to reform campaign finance laws. Do you support that idea?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I absolutely support it, and I’ll remind you that in the last six years, there have been three and only three bills passed on campaign finance reform in the House. They all passed under Democratic leadership, with almost all Democratic votes. One of them was vetoed by President Bush. Two others were filibustered in the Senate by Republicans, one of whom has already said he’ll filibuster any bill we come up with.
So the problem here has not been Democratic adherence to campaign reform. We’re there. We’re going to continue to be there. We will reach out for like-minded Republicans. We will try to get a bill that limits how much can be spent in campaigns, which to me is the heart of campaign reform, and we’ll also try to find ways to cut down on soft money, or get rid of it. I’m for getting rid of it entirely. So we had a bill that I think is good campaign reform, and we will work with like-minded Republicans to get it done and get it to the Senate.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with those analysts who say that you might have had more Democrats elected to the House in this last election if it had not been some negative momentum created by the so-called Indonesian affair?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I think it had an impact. It slowed down some momentum, but frankly, I think a greater effect on our ability to win was the amount of money that Republican candidates had. In the 19 seats we took back from Republicans, our candidates spent, on average, an equal amount of money with the Republicans. In the 26 other seats, where we lost by a percent or two, we were outspent an average of half a million dollars in those campaigns. So the Republicans have been talking about all the money the AFL(-CIO) and other groups spent. The truth is we were outspent three and four to one in most races. And that’s why we didn’t win.
JIM LEHRER: Do you believe Speaker Gingrich should step down until the ethics matters involving him are resolved?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, my hope is that the committee will finish its work in a timely manner and get this material out and make its recommendation to the full committee and then to the whole Congress before January 7. That’s their aim. I understand that’s their goal. I hope they can do that. That, I think, will dispose of it one way or the other.
JIM LEHRER: So you don’t have an opinion about whether or not he should step down between now and then, or what he should do if it isn’t resolved by then?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I’m not going to advise him on what to do. I have a different candidate for speaker than Newt Gingrich, so I don’t intend to vote for him anyway for Speaker.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: But that’s his job.
JIM LEHRER: Right. Their election is on Wednesday. How would you describe your relationship with Speaker Gingrich?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, it’s been distant over the last two years, because I really think he saw it as a parliamentary system. He wanted to get all the votes on his side on all the issues, and he did a good job of that, so there was really not much reaching out to our side. There wasn’t much communication. I have no complaint. They can run the House any way they want.
I don’t think the House works well that way. I think it really should be a bipartisan operation. When I got here, some of the wisest people here said, just remember, nothing important has ever happened here, really important, that wasn’t a bipartisan effort, like the Civil Rights Bill of 1965.
So, I don’t think the way we’ve run the House is the way to do it. I hope they’ll change. We’ve had one meeting. It was promising. The right words are being said about opening up and trying to find bipartisan coalitions. The proof’s in the pudding. I’m from Missouri. We’ve got to show it. So let’s see what happens. I hope it will. We are there. It takes two to tango, though. But we are there to try to get bipartisan coalitions to solve problems.
JIM LEHRER: Is it true that you and Speaker Gingrich have not met one-on-one for over a year?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, that had probably been true up until last week. We did have a meeting last week. And we talked about trying to open up new avenues of communication, trying to work better together, trying to get a bipartisan effort on campaign reform and on the budget and so on. Again, you know, talk is good, but we’ve got to do it. And I hope it will happen. Before then, we did not have a lot of meetings, and, again, I think the speaker saw this as a parliamentary system. They got elected; they had the power; it was their job to pass the bills; and they did it without our help.
JIM LEHRER: So it was all his fault that you all didn’t communicate?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, I am ready to communicate, ready to try to find solutions to problems. I don’t lay blame or place fault.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: That doesn’t get us anywhere. We’ve got to move on from where we are. Whatever happened, happened. Let’s try to make it work.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Gephardt, do you expect negative congressional reaction to the President’s decision to send fresh troops into Bosnia in December?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I think there will be questions raised, and there, undoubtedly, should be questions raised. We were operating under an assumption, I think, and the President was operating under the assumption, and Sec. Perry, that we could get out in about a year, and that’s what we were all trying to do. I think they’ve come to a different judgment. They will explain that. They need to explain that to the Congress and the American people.
I’ve talked to the President about it. I think he is right in what he’s doing. I think his policy has brought us a long way. We’re not to the Golan. We don’t have peace, permanent peace in Bosnia. We need to get that. I think it’s possible to get the other parts of that put in place. We now have the troops separated. We have a cease-fire. All that’s worked. Now we need to get economic and political reform–harder to get–will take longer. We’re going to draw the troops down. We won’t have as many people there, but they believe in the next twelve to eighteen months with a steady draw-down we have a much better chance of reaching those other goals. I think it’s worth doing that. I don’t think we want to go back to the bloodshed that we had.
JIM LEHRER: Do you feel that you and your fellow leaders in the Congress, both on the Republican side and on the Democrat side, were properly consulted by the President on this matter?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I think we are being properly consulted and will be as we go through the next steps. The President has made his judgment on what needs to happen. They have informed the Congress of what they would like to do. Obviously, they’ve got to get enough support in the Congress to support this policy. They will be spending a lot of time on the Hill, talking with members one-on-one and in groups, trying to explain why they think this is important for our foreign policy and for the country.
JIM LEHRER: Do you also support the President’s decision to at least, in principle, send U.S. troops to Zaire for that humanitarian mission?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I do. It’s unclear right now exactly what we’re going to do because of what’s happening over there with people moving back. But I think that his initial reaction with the Canadians, with the other countries, was the right thing to do, and if, indeed, the facts stay the way they were, and they may not, I think it’s reasonable to go ahead and be part of a multinational force to see that people don’t die and there isn’t more loss of life in that very troubled place.
JIM LEHRER: A valid use of U.S. military power.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: It is, and it’s the kind of world we’re in today. We’re no longer in a bipolar struggle with the Soviet Union. We are in a world that is very complicated, where our troops have to do all kinds of different things than we’ve usually been used to. But if we’re to avoid having problems finally spill over into the United States and have, you know, things like a genocide happening in Africa, we have to be part of a world coalition. It’s not our responsibility alone but a world coalition to try to make things come out better.
JIM LEHRER: Well, Leader Gephardt, again, congratulations on your re-election, and thank you for being with us.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Thank you.