GWEN IFILL: Sen. Daschle, welcome.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Thank you, Gwen.
GWEN IFILL: Is the possibility of imminent war a distraction for your agenda?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: No question. War is always not only a distraction, but it becomes the central focus of all of our concern, and the anxiety that I think people have today, whether they express it or not. There is a great deal of anxiety about this president's activities and actions, and I think he needs to address those anxieties when he speaks to the nation in his state of the union.
GWEN IFILL: Do you think he will to your satisfaction?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I doubt that he will, frankly. I'm concerned about the tendency this administration has had to go it alone, to be unilateralist, not to include not only Congress, but the international community in the actions that they take.
They have flip-flopped and had so many fits and starts on North Korea, I can't count them all. And so, it is troubling, and it doesn't generate the kind of confidence that I think America and the world community needs as we address these issues of war and peace.
GWEN IFILL: Does it work to your advantage that you have a novice majority leader in Bill Frist?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I told some of my colleagues this morning that I think it would be a big mistake to underestimate Bill Frist. He has a stellar reputation, an experience level that may not be in keeping with past majority leaders, but I think it would be a mistake, and I'm not going to do that. I fully expect that he will be a very effective and successful Republican leader.
GWEN IFILL: How do Democrats fight hard for the issues that you consider to be important at a time when the majority is controlled by a party that does not agree with you on almost any of those issues?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, first of all, we start with the strongest majority... minority you can have and still be in the minority. Any more than the 49 and we'd be in the majority. So we have numerical strength.
But I think the real key is the unity that I hope we can achieve. It isn't just numerical strength that counts. It's the unification of our caucus. It's the ability to reach almost unanimity on all of these critical questions. Then you take that numerical strength and that unity, and apply the tactics and strategies that will be required as we go through.
Sometimes, of course, it's leverage as we work in committee. Sometimes it's leverage on the floor, as we may be called upon to extend debate indefinitely until we feel we've had the kind of impact on the particular challenge we're facing at the time.
GWEN IFILL: When you define power as stopping something, don't you run the risk of being deemed an obstructionist, as you have been before?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, you do, but sometimes you have to wear that badge proudly. And I don't mind stopping a bad nomination or a bad policy.
I'll take all the hits, if it is that, to stop a Pickering nomination, or to stop a bad tax plan. That's part of our role. Right now, I view as a major responsibility for our caucus being the brakes on inadvisable Bush policy, and we're going to do it proudly and aggressively.
GWEN IFILL: What policies would you like to see the 108th session accomplish?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think we have to deal primarily with two categories of issues: Economic and those issues involving foreign policy. They're the most prominent. And then right behind that are, I would call, the Democratic priority wish list.
But in terms of the economy, clearly we've got to deal with the fact that we've lost 190,000 jobs in the last two months; 2.2 million jobs in the last two years. We can't afford to allow joblessness to be unattended, as it has been.
And, of course, with regard to the Persian Gulf and North Korea, and the Middle East, we have a great deal of requirement for involvement and partnership with the administration. I don't think that partnership is as good as it could be, because they don't appear to want to include the Congress. But nonetheless, I think that partnership is a necessity.
Beyond that, clearly education and health care, prescription drugs, minimum wage, dealing with the need to strengthen America, is just as important as strengthening our country militarily.
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about a few of these issues one at a time. You have signaled that you're not particularly interested in the president's stimulus package, his tax cut plan. What is it that you think will happen to that? And do you have a reasonable alternative?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, the president's plan will not pass. I think it's fair to say that it lacks even Republican support sufficient for passage. And it won't pass in part because it's not stimulative; it only creates 190,000 jobs. It's just not fair to give $20 billion to 226,000 millionaires and only $15 billion to 92 million Americans who fit in the $50,000 income category or less. It's not fair.
GWEN IFILL: But the economy is hurting. What do Democrats propose?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, we propose a plan that has five components, Gwen.
First, we think it ought to be a one-year plan. We think that that is critical, focus on this year; let's worry about other problems economically when we address them later on. We think it ought to be immediate. We think it ought to be targeted to the middle class.
We think it ought to help the states, and not be fiscally irresponsible. A plan that has those five components is a plan that Democrats will propose as the time draws near.
GWEN IFILL: The president has indicated on another issue that he does not favor a prescription drug package that is not tied to overall Medicare reform. How do you plan to respond to that?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, their concept of medical reform is really the dismantling of Medicare as we know it. So if that's what he's saying, you can't have a prescription drug benefit without dismantling Medicare, we're opposed to it.
We think Medicare works pretty well. My mother is on Medicare, and millions and millions of Americans would not have health care today were it not for a good Medicare program.
Can we make it better? Of course. But to dismantle it, to privatize it, as so many Republicans suggest, is just flat wrong.
GWEN IFILL: Are you willing to sacrifice prescription drug benefits, improvement in prescription drug benefits, in order to stop the president's Medicare reform plan?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I would hope that's a false choice. I would hope that we could stop this radical idea of reform as the Republicans propose it, and still do what both Republicans and Democrats say they need, which is to do a meaningful and consequential drug benefit for all seniors, at least. I think that can be done. We came close last year. I think we've got to get closer this year, and I'd like to see it happen.
GWEN IFILL: Will there be any other fallout on another issue from the exit of Trent Lott -- that is to say, on civil rights, hate crimes, issues of concern to minorities, because of all the concerns that were raised about the comments that Sen. Lott made?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, we saw a lot of Republican rhetoric. We heard a lot of Republican rhetoric after the controversy began last month.
What troubles me is that while there is now a change of face in Republican leadership, I see no change of heart. I see no change of heart with regard to nominations.
The Pickering nomination is back before the Senate. I see no change of heart with regard to civil rights proposals. They continue to oppose hate crimes.
They have indicated now opposition to the Michigan case on diversity. So there is no change of heart. There is only change of rhetoric, and that is extraordinarily disconcerting to many of us.
GWEN IFILL: What issues would you consider to be nonstarters right now for the Republicans on the Hill? And what issues do you consider to be -- I won't ask you which issues are nonstarters for Democrats, because you probably wouldn't admit that -- which issues do you consider to be most likely for Democrats to win?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I would say the nonstarter begins with the president's tax plan. That is a nonstarter. That isn't going to happen. I think there are ways with which to make a tax plan work, and I've given my principles on what Democrats could agree with. But clearly, that's where we'd start. I would say the Pickering nomination is a nonstarter. I think we have the votes, whether it's through a filibuster or straight up or down, to defeat the Pickering nomination. But time will tell. I do think, and I hope, that there is ample occasion for us throughout the year to work together on an array of issues.
We've got to fully fund the Leave No Child Behind Act. The president committed to doing that. So far, he has not done that. I think we've got to make a better commitment to education than what we've seen in this president's budget. I also think it's critical that we deal with many of the huge health care questions we're facing in this country today.
When I go home to South Dakota, the number one issue raised over and over again is the cost of health care. We've got to address it as a country. They need to help lead the way in reaching policy consensus on how we do it, and we ought to do it this year.
GWEN IFILL: Do you think the Democrats will have a louder, perhaps more raucous, voice in all of this debate in the next year?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Absolutely. You know, if I hear one word that describes our Democratic mood right now, it's "fight."
We really believe that we've got to fight for the things we believe in. We're going to fight for them offensively and defensively, fight when our principles and when the values of this country as we see them are challenged, but fight to win the kinds of things that we dream in this country of having; the opportunities that present themselves with better education and better health care and more equal opportunity. We're going to fight for those things, and fight against the things that we think undermine those dreams and those goals.
GWEN IFILL: Senator Daschle, thank you very much.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: My pleasure.