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Sen. Mitch McConnell on COVID relief, election reform and the filibuster rule

On a day that President Biden signed a $1.9 trillion COVID aid bill into law, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell joins Judy Woodruff to discuss Republican opposition to the COVID bill, as well as House legislation on election reforms, the Senate filibuster rule, and resistance to vaccinations.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first, we want to delve into the new COVID relief law.

    And we get two views, starting with the Senate's top Republican, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

    Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, thank you very much for joining us.

    The bill President Biden signed today, you have said it's the worst piece of legislation you have seen pass in your time in the Senate. And yet it helps working-class Americans. There is support in it for the unemployed. There is support for health care workers and for schools. And the polls are showing 70 percent of Americans like it.

    Why are they wrong?

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    Well, look, I'm not surprised at the American public's initial reaction to this, before they know what's in it, would be positive.

    I mean, the thought of many Americans getting a $1,400 check, why would they not like that? But let's look at the history of the pandemic, which really started about a year ago.

    We passed five bills last year, Judy, five of them, the biggest one being the CARES Act, on a bipartisan basis. Not a single one of them got more than eight votes in opposition.

    We just two months ago passed one of those five, $900 billion. It's not even out the door yet, and yet the new administration wants to go back as if nothing has happened in the last year, and do another bill that the president will sign today, the size of the bill we did a year ago, at the height of the epidemic.

    So, I understand why the American people's initial response to this is positive. What they do not know is how much of the bill has nothing to do with the pandemic. Less than 1 percent of it deals with vaccinations. Only about 9 percent of it deals with health care.

    All the rest of it is unrelated to the problem it's designed to address.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Senator, the administration has been candid to say the bill is about the economy. They point out tens of millions of Americans are still unemployed. They say that this bill would take something like 13 million Americans, lift them out of poverty, reduce child poverty in half.

    Are you saying you oppose those things?

  • Mitch McConnell:

    What I'm saying is, the economy is about to come roaring back.

    What the administration is trying to do here, Judy, is to get in front of the parade, so they can take credit for what's already happening, based upon what we have already done. The economy is just going to have a fabulous year. It has nothing to do with this massive Democratic wish list of items that their various constituencies warrant.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, the administration, Senator ,says they are aware of the projections about the economy, but they still believe that these are necessary to help people who are the most in need in this country.

    And when it comes to the debt, we know you mentioned future generations paying for this. Under President Trump, the debt was something like — added to something like $8 trillion almost. So, you're not saying that is something that's only OK under a Republican president, are you?

  • Mitch McConnell:

    No, I'm not saying that.

    I'm saying that, last year, it was clearly justified, based upon the pandemic. Otherwise, it wouldn't have been passed overwhelmingly on a bipartisan basis. But what they're trying to do this year, it's noteworthy, received a single Republican vote in the House or Senate.

    You have to ask yourself why. Why? Because this year is not last year. The economy is on the way back. This is going to be a great year for the American people. New jobs are going to lift people out of poverty. And so it just simply did not fit, Judy, the condition we find ourselves in, in March of 2021, which is not the condition we found ourselves in, in March of 2020.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator, another piece of legislation, important piece of legislation heading towards the Senate has to do with election reform, with creating a national standard for voting.

    It advocates — the advocates, people who are for this says it was necessitated by what state legislatures are dealing to restrict voting in a way that would primarily affect voters of color.

    What is your — at this point, what is your view of this?

  • Mitch McConnell:

    Well, it's another bill that passed with not a single Republican vote.

    And the reason for it is, even though it's styled as somewhat related to what they call voter suppression, what I read the states are doing is restoring some of the voting practices that existed before the pandemic, in other words, simply eliminating some of the emergency provisions that were there during the pandemic.

    This is an outrageous one-party takeover of the way we conduct elections in this country. And there will be overwhelming, total Republican opposition to it in the Senate, just like there was in the House.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Senator, just quickly, that raises the question of the Senate rule known as the filibuster.

    It is something that you changed the rule around in 2017 when it came to the Supreme Court confirmation for Neil Gorsuch. Democrats may try to do the same thing in the weeks and months to come.

  • Mitch McConnell:

    A totally different issue.

    The Senate has two calendars, the executive calendar, nominations — the House is not in the personnel business — and the legislative calendar.

    The executive calendar, for most of the history of the country, was operated as a simple majority. Then the Democrats started filibustering nominations, which was never done before. And we did go back and forth on that over the last 20 years.

    But now we're back to where we were at the beginning of Bush 43's administration, the executive calendar done with a simple majority. That's not been the case for legislation. The legislative filibuster has been there for a very long time.

    Our Democratic friends in the minority last year used it frequently to stop things that we might have wanted to do. Now they're threatening to blow the place up and turn the Senate into the House, so that they can get their way, with presumably 50 Democrats voting yes and the vice president being in the chair.

    There is considerable reluctance on the other side to do that because people remember when they were in the minority. And what the Senate filibuster does is one of two things. Either really bad ideas don't pass at all, or you sit down and reach a bipartisan agreement.

    And that's why Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema have said under no circumstances will they participate in turning the Senate into the House.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator, one final quick question.

    And that is, in our new poll with Marist and NPR, it turns out that Republican men and people who supported President — former President Trump remain the most against getting a COVID vaccine.

    What would be your message to them.

  • Mitch McConnell:

    With regard to the vaccine, as soon as I was eligible, I took it.

    I have encouraged everybody in my state to take it. And this shouldn't be a partisan issue, either mask-wearing or getting the vaccination. Getting the vaccination is important. I would encourage everyone to do that, without exception. They're proven safe and necessary, if we're going to get this pandemic in the rearview mirror.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

  • Mitch McConnell:

    Thank you, Judy.

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