RAY SUAREZ: Senator McCain pledged last week to push campaign finance reform legislation to the top of the Senate agenda. He said he would bring it to the floor within three weeks of George W. Bush's inauguration. The long-stalled measure got a boost when Republican Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi endorsed it. Joining us now from Phoenix, Arizona, is the senior senator from Arizona, John McCain. Welcome back to the program.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Thanks, Ray, how are you?
RAY SUAREZ: All right. Let's talk a little bit about this timetable. What is involved in you bringing that legislation? Can you bring it by yourself?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I think that with at least 50 additional votes, that I can do that, Ray, but the important point is that after we were blocked the last time, Senator Feingold and I were blocked, we promised that we would bring up campaign finance reform again. This was a long time ago. And I've been involved in this issue since before President Bush, former President Bush, was president. And we are committed to seeing that this is brought up. I intend to do everything that I can to bring it up early so as not to interfere with President-elect Bush's legislative agenda. If you look back at every new administration in the last 20 to 30 years, you'll see that the first three or four weeks are taken up with nominations and confirmation and not any legislative agenda. So I think the best way to work in a bipartisan fashion and with President-elect Bush would be to bring it up early and dispose of it.
RAY SUAREZ: The leadership of your own conference, the Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, the minority whip, majority whip, Senator Nickles, have both suggested that because of that Bush agenda that perhaps you might wait until the summer, perhaps after the Fourth of July -- till the president can get some of his first legislative initiatives off the ground. Why not wait?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, first of all, I think... I can think of nothing better than a bipartisan bill that the president would sign that could clean up this corruption, which is afflicting Washington. My second point is, look, the fund raising is beginning. The invitations are already out. The $500,000 ticket fund-raisers are being planned as we speak. We have to act early to stop this incredible explosion of soft money. As you know the last presidential campaign we just completed, there were more than double the amount of soft money -- that's the unregulated money -- as there was in the '96 presidential campaign. It's got to be done early and everybody realizes that. I think that whether I did it in July or whenever, it would interfere with President Bush's legislative agenda. If we did it early, it wouldn't interfere with anything. We could have our debates, our amendments and whatever the outcome would be, I would respect. That's all I've been asking for. Frankly, that's what we've been blocked from.
RAY SUAREZ: Do you think if it comes earlier in the new Congress, rather than later, that the president will have less maneuvering room to veto it?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: No. I have every expectation that we can work out an agreement with President-elect Bush. He said before the South Carolina primary that he was for banning corporate contributions and labor contributions. I hope that we can work together on it, but also political reality is if you have an overwhelming vote on the part of the Congress, then obviously then it would tend to lend pressure towards having the president sign it. But my fondest hope is that we all sit down and work this out on both sides of the aisle and with President-elect Bush.
RAY SUAREZ: Since the summer, since you endorsed President-elect Bush for president and folded your own campaign, you've made no secret of your intention to bring up this bill and bring it up early in the session. Have you had a chance to talk about it with George W. Bush?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, I talked to him on the phone right after the election and said I'd like to sit down and talk to him about it. He agreed that we should do that. I haven't talked to him since about that issue. But let me just say, I didn't just say it after I folded my tent, so to speak. I said it during the campaign. I promised millions of Americans that I wouldn't quit on this crusade. Let me just point out one other aspect of this. Look, you're not going to have an HMO patients' bill of rights or a prescription drug program for seniors or clean up the tax code -- which is now 44,000 pages long -- or even reform the military unless you get rid or reduce the influence of the special interests. That's why... one of the major reasons why we've been gridlocked in the past. The big money people are sitting in the front row with a megaphone and average citizens are sitting back whispering. That's not right, Ray. And we all know it's not right and almost everyone who has had to run for public office recognizes that it's time to clean this thing up.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, the last time you tried to get this out for a floor vote, you just didn't have the numbers to force it out there. Did the last election change the landscape in the Senate so that you think you have a better shot this time?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I think it's important to recognize that last time it was blocked by the Democrats as well as the Republicans who filled up the tree. But more importantly, of course, it did. If you ask Maria Cantwell, if you ask Debbie Stabenow, if you ask other political observers, yes, the issue of campaign finance reform was an important issue in those campaigns. I campaigned for about 70 candidates, and many of the House members who were elected will also tell you that the issue is there. John Zogby is at least recently the most accurate pollster that I know of. He addressed both Democratic and Republican conferences in the last week or so and said that campaign finance reform should be the first issue, and the reason why it's not high in the polls is not because it isn't important to Americans, but they don't believe that we'll ever clean up our own act. I agree with John Zogby because I don't think we would have enjoyed the success that we did if it hadn't have been for my commitment to reform, which again I've been involved in for many, many years.
RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned Maria Cantwell and Debbie Stabenow, two newly elected Democrats. Recently a lot of attention was paid to Thad Cochran coming in and holding a news conference with you. When you see a member like that coming over to your own side, someone from your own party, someone who hadn't been on your side before, what does that signal to the rest of the body?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, I think when someone like Thad Cochran, who is one of the most respected and well-liked members of the Senate, he's a true gentleman, comes over in a public way that he did, it has an effect. I talked to a number of the new members. I think there is consensus now, even with the majority leader and the majority whip, Senator Nickles, that we have to address the issue. What has shifted here is not whether we're going to bring up campaign finance reform but when. In the past few years, as you know, they've just tried to block it. I don't think they're going to try to block it at least directly, but I have no illusions about how difficult this would be and how Machiavellian this whole situation becomes because we're really talking about literally hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions if not billions.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you need 60 votes to make sure you get it out on to the floor. Do you have that?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Yeah, sure, we have 60 votes I'm sure to bring up the bill. Now, I don't know how many are for or against certain provisions of the bill. And that's why we need the regular amending process and debate. And that way, because I'm sure that, for example, Senator Cochran has told me he would like to see much more stringent disclosure requirements than is in our bill. I want to work with him in that way. I talked to Senator Ensign the other day about the issue of the independent campaigns. I talked to Senator DeWine about the so-called millionaire problem where as we know, one candidate spent $65 million of his own money in the last campaign. So we need to build consensus on that, and there will be different views on different specifics about the issue.
RAY SUAREZ: Earlier today when Secretary of Labor-designate Linda Chavez pulled out, she talked about the politics of personal destruction, about how difficult the vetting process has become for high appointed office in Washington. You're someone who likes to say that you've been serving your country since you got your first commission. Did she have a point?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I think so. I certainly extend to her family -- I know we all do -- to her and her family our deep sympathy in this very difficult time for them. I was very impressed by her press conference today. The first real experience I had with this, Ray, was when John Tower was destroyed in the confirmation process. I've seen it in other people. But I've never seen anything quite like what was done to John Tower, the leaking of raw FBI data which... most of which had absolutely no basis in fact, which really destroyed him. And I do have a concern that Ms. Chavez raised today, and that is the willingness of people to serve perhaps not in the high visibility Cabinet positions but in the offices of undersecretary and deputy- secretary and those are levels of government that really need the highest and most qualified and most motivated people that we can find. I do worry about that.
RAY SUAREZ: So how do we strike that balance between knowing what we need to know and not knowing too much?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: When someone comes up with the answer to that, I think they'll be famous. I do believe that there is a requirement that every nominee go through a certain amount of scrutiny. We just can't pass on them. I do also believe -- and I held to this belief when President Clinton was president -- that the president should have the benefit of the doubt on his nominees because he deserves the right to have people around him of his choice to be serving him. But how you strike that careful balance, I really do not know. An example today that is interesting, and maybe I shouldn't even bring this up, but Ms. Chavez had apparently or allegedly not paid taxes or something and another nominee to another position also had done the same thing only we expect easy confirmation. So, it's a very interesting scenario. A lot of times a controversy over the nominee is.
RAY SUAREZ: Senator, got to go. Thank you very much for being with us.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Thank you.