JIM LEHRER: Senator, welcome.
SEN. BILL FRIST: Jim, good to be with you.
JIM LEHRER: First on the stall court nominee, Sen. Specter began new hearings today on the most moderate of the nine or ten nominees that are at issue with the Democrats. Do you support that strategy of Sen. Specter's?
SEN. BILL FRIST: Jim, I do. We have seven nominees that the president has sent back over, all of whom we have not had the opportunity to give advice and consent on. Some have had hearings, some have not had hearings. Today's nominee has had hearings, but in order to show restraint, to show that we're trying to work together, I think it's a good approach to have the hearing today, to have questions be answered.
Ultimately we'll be taking these nominees to the floor of the United States Senate. And I plea, I plea that we be allowed to give advice and consent and even if you're not going to vote for him, allow us to vote yes or no, up or down.
JIM LEHRER: The Democrats say they're still - nothing's changed as far as they're concerned - they're still going to do what they did before, which is block these. What do you think has changed?
SEN. BILL FRIST: Again I hope the 109th Congress, if you look back, which has just started, and if you look back the last two weeks ago we successfully worked together for the American people, delivered what they deserve with a class action bill.
It is true that after 220 years of history in this country in the last Congress for the first time in history a judicial nominee came from the president to our body and we denied them, we denied them because of the use of filibuster in up or down vote for the first time ever and it didn't happen one time, it happened two, three, four, five, six, seven; it was a tool that's unacceptable and inconsistent with that advice and consent clause of the Constitution.
JIM LEHRER: But, as you know, the Democrats say that there's a very small number compared with the 204 they did confirm. Now, those numbers don't mean anything from your point of view?
SEN. BILL FRIST: No, no. It's just too quick because that's what they always say and I've heard it now for a year and you know, I've listened to that, but the point is that one out of every four of the nominees coming from the president have been denied the opportunity not to - not necessarily to be approved but to get an up or down vote.
And the only way we can give advice and consent, unlike with legislation but on a nominee is to vote on the floor of the United States Senate. One out of every four were denied that opportunity.
Secondly, we're talking about not just numbers either way, because both sides can use specifics; we're talking about the Constitution, what we took an oath to, to give advice and consent, the only way we can give advice and consent is voting yes or no.
JIM LEHRER: What do you say to the Democrats that point out that during the Clinton administration Republicans didn't even allow 100 federal court nominees out of the Judiciary Committee?
SEN. BILL FRIST: All that - that didn't - you know, if they want that principle or we need some sort of principle to show restraint - I think that that continues, depending on what the committee itself decides.
I think that if a nominee comes that has majority support, we know that the majority of the representatives of the American people will approve these nominees. Let's just give them a chance to come to the floor, up or down vote, and that's all that we ask.
JIM LEHRER: Are you prepared to use what's called a nuclear option if the Democrats persist?
SEN. BILL FRIST: Jim, I'd like not to have to and I hope by allowing these nominees, even like today, who've already had a hearing, that we're having them go back, have another hearing, the same sort of questions chose to sort of balance common sense restraint that I am showing.
I tell you what I cannot -- or we're showing - I tell you what I cannot tolerate and that is to throw away 220 years of history in this country where it's never been done before, never been done before. It was done last Congress. We can't let that stand as a precedent and I will do everything within my power as Republican leader, Majority Leader, to get an up or down vote. And there are a whole range of things that can be done.
First it was filled with a degree of restraint on our side and their side just to allow them to a vote. But, yes, everything is on the table, and we may well have to use either a constitutional option, if we have no choice, and I hope that we don't have to though.
JIM LEHRER: But the nuclear option - just so people understand what that means - that would mean that you would do away with the filibuster for all practical - in other words, you change the rules so that 60 votes would no longer be required; it's very complicated, but the end result is these nominees could be passed with 51 votes; you've got plenty of votes for that on the Republican side and essentially do away with a filibuster, right?
SEN. BILL FRIST: Well, the filibuster only for the judicial nominees because that is the specific group that the Constitution says give advice and consent so it's not the overall filibuster like for legislation but yes.
And we're asking not that they all be approved but just allow us to give advice and consent by giving us a chance to vote for them. You decide how you're going to vote, but let us have that opportunity to vote and we're going to insist on that.
JIM LEHRER: As you know, the Democrats say if you in fact do that, they will use rules like using the unanimous consent rule, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, in other words, not going along with unanimous consent, and essentially shut down the business of the United States Senate.
SEN. BILL FRIST: Jim, I just have to keep coming back to the Constitution of the United States. Last week or last month when thirty-three, thirty-four senators took an oath, they didn't take an oath of government overall; they took an oath to the Constitution of the United States of America and it come back -- the other side of the aisle really believes that they ought to stop the nation's business when we have to make health care more available and more affordable; we're fighting a war on terror today.
We do want a secure and a safe retirement for our seniors; we have lawsuit abuse that's shattering small businesses and families. If they really want to stop overall government for a period of time and say no, if that's what their party is becoming, then so be it, because our oath is to the Constitution: to give advice and consent.
JIM LEHRER: You mean so be it, go ahead, shut down the Senate?
SEN. BILL FRIST: No, of course I don't want them to but if they are - you know, I can't tell them it's posturing or not - I don't know - and I'm not saying that I'm just saying that ultimately the oath that I took to our government to be a United States Senator is to the Constitution and that's my first priority.
That's why the people of Tennessee elected me; that's why the majority party elected me to be their leader. And ultimately our allegiance has to come back to the Constitution - not to partisan posturing or partisan rancor or partisan politics - we're way above that in this particular case.
JIM LEHRER: So you reject out of hand that what they are doing is exactly what the Republicans did to President Clinton and have done to Democratic presidents through the years; there's no difference at all?
SEN. BILL FRIST: There's not, I just told you, never before in the history of the country has a judicial nominee come from the president that has majority support if this new procedural tool has been used to kill 'em on the floor of the Senate. They've got majority support, denied giving advice and consent. It has never ever happened until the last Congress.
JIM LEHRER: New subject Senator, Social Security. Sen. Grassley, who's the key Republican chairman on Social Security, suggested yesterday the public is still not convinced that major reform is needed. Do you agree with him?
SEN. BILL FRIST: You know, it's been fascinating. We just got back there today, as you know, from a recess the last eight or nine days.
JIM LEHRER: That's what he was referring to.
SEN. BILL FRIST: That's right, and some things that he learned, and we've had our meetings today and gotten together.
A couple of things: first of all the crowds turned out to be town meetings, more than they have for your typical town meetings. So the American people are increasingly showing up, participating compared to a month ago or two months ago.
Secondly, the opposition, this sort of say no, there is no problem opposition is very, very organized all across the country. Third, what we learned is that the Democrats or the other side of the aisle, the Democrats here in the United States Senate deny there's a problem; they said there is no problem, period.
The American people are telling us something differently, and when we engage them, they're saying that there is a problem; we're doubling the number of seniors, each senior is living longer, fewer people paying into the system over time. The baby boom begins to hit in three years. It is a problem, a problem that we know is going to grow, a problem that politicians can't hide from any longer.
Do we have to do more, as Sen. Grassley said, absolutely. We need to engage the American people, have them understand what is at risk for their children and that next generation.
JIM LEHRER: The specific proposal of the president's, at least based on the polling information that I've looked at, this personal savings account idea, there's not a majority there, is there?
SEN. BILL FRIST: Jim, we're just starting. You know, it's really interesting. People act like you're on the last five yards on the football field; I think we're really on the first five yards. We have to engage the American people.
Most seniors today think - they don't want any change because they think something is going to affect them or something is going to be taken away. We have to start with education, that basically nobody is proposing that benefits for current seniors or seniors that were born before 1950, nothing is going to change for them.
Most of the American people don't know that. We have got to engage the American people. The problem is there: It can't be stopped. It's driven by demographics. We, as political figures, must respond to it. And that's why I have so much confidence that we will get good reform.
As for what's - going to the specifics of your question, everything should be on the table as far as I'm concerned. First identify the problem, stop hiding from it, and then put everything on the table. And we can negotiate; we can talk to the American people and among ourselves as to what to propose, what not to propose, and we're not at that point yet, but we're going to be there soon.
JIM LEHRER: So if from your point of view a personal savings account has to go off the table and go by the board, so be it, in order to get some kind of reform --
SEN. BILL FRIST: No, I didn't say that. I said we've got to get the politicians to wake up in America. Right now, when I've got the other side of the aisle saying there's no problem. First of all you have to make the diagnosis before you come in and decide what operation you're going to do. It's as simple as that to me. It's no more complicated.
And the Democrats, at least in the United States Senate, say there is no problem. First of all, let's make the diagnosis, let's come in. Personal savings accounts to me are one of the most powerful things, not necessarily in saving, solvency, or bankruptcy of the program, but in guaranteeing, the words I used a few minutes ago, a safe and secure retirement for our seniors.
Just think if young people today could set aside a nest egg, allow it to grow over time, even pass it on if they didn't use it, something that people in Social Security simply don't have that opportunity to do today, to me it would be very, very powerful. It alone does not save the system, which we have an obligation to do.
JIM LEHRER: What do you make of the recent talk just in the last day or two about the Moynihan Plan, it was called, named after the late Sen. Pat Moynihan, which is called Social Security Plus; you leave the Social Security program pretty much the way it is and you add then personal savings in addition to that - are you - does that sound good to you?
SEN. BILL FRIST: You know, I would look at it, Jim. I'll tell you, the reality is that even over the recess last week, and what I've dealt with all day today, is a lack of a complete appreciation of how challenging, how big this problem is. And as I said before pretty much all of the proposals that smart people like Sen. Moynihan had put on the table, look at them today, where we are today in 2005, and then if we can get the other side of the aisle to the table, at least to talk about it, then we can decide which specific approach to adopt.
JIM LEHRER: Senator finally, are you considering seeking the 2008 Republican nomination for president?
SEN. BILL FRIST: Jim, as you can tell, just in our conversation here when you look at the range of things that we're addressing, with lawsuit abuse, fighting the war on terror, making health care available and affordable, having a tax system that is simple, fair and consistent the next two years I am absolutely 100 percent focused.
After my two terms in the United States Senate are completed, I'm going back to Tennessee, and then it might be out practicing medicine, which is where my real love is; it might be doing medical mission work or trying to figure out a cure for HIV-AIDS. So, I really don't know what I'll be doing after I leave the Senate.
JIM LEHRER: Pat Robertson, you know, the conservative activist, said the other day that if you were not able to deliver on getting confirmation of these judicial appointments for the president no way would you get conservative support in 2008. Does that kind of talk bother you?
SEN. BILL FRIST: No, because I'm not running for anything in 2008; I'm trying to serve the American people. At this point I'm looking not at Republican problems or Democrat problems. I'm trying to pull people together to address the American challenges that are out there, and that's where my focus us; it's why I decided to come to the United States Senate and leave a medical practice 12 years ago, and now we have the opportunity to address the big issues that are going to affect you and your children and the next generation and I just went through the list, and we have a two-year window here that I know that we can deliver for the American people on, and that's where my focus is.
JIM LEHRER: All right, Sen. Frist, thank you very much.
SEN. BILL FRIST: Thank you, Jim.