Night: The Future Congress
ANNOUNCER: The 106th Congress is in its final hours. The 107th convenes in January. Who should control it -- Republicans or Democrats? The GOP has been in charge for the last six years. Now, with only a slim majority a change in a handful of seats on election day could put Democrats back in power.
Tonight, PBS presents Debate Night 2000: Democrats and Republicans make their case for controlling Congress. Now, here are moderators Margaret Warner and Gwen Ifill.
MARGARET WARNER: Good evening and welcome to Public Television's Debate Night. I'm Margaret Warner.
GWEN IFILL: And I'm Gwen Ifill. We're in Washington tonight for a one-hour national conversation -- an exchange, if you will, across the partisan divide between Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress. As part of a local-national PBS programming effort many of your local stations will follow this program with local candidate forums.
MARGARET WARNER: While the election news this year has focused mainly on the presidential race, on November 7th voters will also choose 34 senators and all 435 members of the House.
The Democrats would have to gain seven House seats or five Senate seats to wrest control of either house from the Republicans. The outcome of these House and Senate races will affect not only the priorities of the next Congress, but the fortunes of the next president. NewsHour Congressional Correspondent Kwame Holman explains how that relationship is working this year.
Situation in the Congress
KWAME HOLMAN: As the two major candidates for president crisscrossed the country this fall, they campaigned on many of the same issues Congress has debated for months. Al Gore, for example, is pushing for a Medicare-based prescription drug program for seniors costing $340 billion over ten years.
VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE: So it's time to modernize it and improve it by adding a prescription drug benefit for all seniors under the Medicare program.
KWAME HOLMAN: Congressional Republicans rejected that idea in June, favoring instead a limited, less expensive approach.
George W. Bush has pegged his presidential bid in part to $1.3 trillion in across-the-board tax cuts.
GOVERNOR GEORGE BUSH: I've laid out a plan that's gonna share one quarter of the surplus with the people who pay the bills.
KWAME HOLMAN: Republicans in Congress gave up on that idea a year ago after President Clinton vetoed their plan. And their bipartisan efforts this year to provide relief from estate and marriage penalty taxes were vetoed as well. However, a few weeks ago both sides did agree in principal to set aside most of an anticipated $2.2 trillion surplus over the next ten years to pay down the national debt.
HOUSE SPEAKER DENNIS HASTERT: We'd like to take at least 90 percent of the non-Social Security and Medicare surplus and lock it away and make sure that we pay down the debt with it.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER TRENT LOTT: That would still leave funds for the small business tax cuts, the retirement benefits, as well as some increased funding for things like education.
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I presented a budget back in January which saves 90 percent of the surplus for debt reduction, and obviously I agree with that.
KWAME HOLMAN: But in recent days, as members rushed to drop the curtain on this 106th Congress, they've loaded up final spending bills with billions of dollars for special projects. South Carolina Republican Mark Sanford, a strict fiscal conservative, blames both Democrats and Republicans.
U.S. REP. MARK SANFORD (R-S.C.): It's just the nature of -- frankly people get greedy at the end of the year. They see it as Christmas comes to Washington early, and people want to open their presents and drag them back to the congressional districts real early.
KWAME HOLMAN: Pat Danner, a Missouri Democrat, says she'll go home with little sense of accomplishment.
U.S. REP. PAT DANNER (D-MO): As we approach Halloween it occurs to me that we are not going to be giving very many treats to the American public. We're not going to give them campaign finance reform, we're not going to give them patient's bill of rights, we're not going to give them prescription drugs for seniors, and then two bills that are particularly important to me, a marriage tax penalty and estate tax relief, in which I was the Democrat co-sponsor, they're not going to become law.
KWAME HOLMAN: But the 106th Congress can boast a few significant accomplishments: banking and financial services reform, greater flexibility for states using federal education funds, an increase in outside income limits for Social Security recipients, more money to fight the drug trade in Colombia and permanent normal trade relations with China. Perhaps not as many major accomplishments as in Congresses past, but this 106th Congress got off to a slow legislative start in January of 1999, preoccupied with the president's impeachment trial and U.S. involvement in the war in Kosovo.
GWEN IFILL: Joining us now are: for the Democrats Senator Harry Reid of Nevada and Representative David Bonior of Michigan ; and for the Republicans, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Congressman J.C. Watts of Oklahoma.
MARGARET WARNER: Welcome, gentlemen. We're going to begin with an opening question to the two House leaders. Here, and throughout the evening, we've asked the participants -- in the interest of give-and-take -- to keep their answers to a minute. The Democrats won the coin toss and will lead off.
Congressman Bonior, why would Americans be better off if the Democrats took control of Congress?
U.S. REP. DAVID BONIOR: Because we want all Americans to participate in the prosperity of our country. We want for our children smaller classes in a safe and a disciplined school environment. For our seniors, they deserve a secure retirement and they also deserve prescription drug plan under Medicare. We believe families deserve a tax cut, not a trillion dollar tax cut that will send us into a cycle of inflation, debt and high interest rates.
Unfortunately this Republican controlled Congress has blocked attempts at bipartisan cooperation. They blocked campaign finance reform, raising the minimum wage, holding HMOs accountable, having a prescription drug plan under Medicare, gun safety for our children.
They have attempted to enact an enormous tax cut for the wealthiest of the wealthiest and the special interests. And as a result of that they have spent a lot of time trying give many things to a few people at the expense of many and we think the American people deserve better than that.
MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Watts, why would Americans be better off if the Republicans kept control of Congress?
U.S. REP. J.C. WATTS: Well, Margaret, when we inherited Congress in 1995, we inherited a Congress that was in dire need of repair and renewal, we were spending out more money then we were taking in. We needed to have Welfare reform we were spending the social security surplus and and Medicare surplus to pay the government's bill. We were telling kids, local school districts and teachers and administrators back home how to educate our kids. Our military was in disarray -- we needed more money there.
And in the six years we have been in the majority we have balanced our books. We don't spend out more money then we take in anymore, we don't spend the Social Security and Medicare surpluses to pay the government's bills. We're sending education dollars back home. We've reformed welfare -- six and half million more Americans in the workplace today because we chose to see compassion in a different way. And our future is more secure for our kids and our grandkids because of our Republican majority.