By J. Taylor Rushing and Bob Cusack - 08/04/10 07:35 PM EDT
The Hill: [National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman] John Cornyn (Texas) has said that re-taking control of the Senate is a multi-cycle task, that it’s going to take more than just what happens on Nov. 2. Do you agree with that?
McConnell: “Well, it’s really kind of hard to look forward, so let’s just take a snapshot of where we are. If the election were today, we’d have a good day. The president’s approval rating is well below 50 and has been for a month or so. The party generic ballot — ‘Would you be more likely to vote Republican or Democrat?’ — is very good.
“It appears as if the American people are interested in having some checks and balances against the explosion of spending and debt and Washington takeovers and now tax increases as well. But I’m reluctant to kind of project the future. But we’re optimistic. We’re optimistic that it will be a good day on Nov. 2 and restore some balance to the government.”
The Hill: One of the messages that Democrats have is a warning to voters not to go back to the [George W.] Bush policies — that if you vote Republican, Senate or House, you’re going back to Bush’s policies. What would be different with congressional Republicans than President Bush’s policies, going forward?
McConnell: “Well, the Democrats would like to have a ‘do-over’ of the ’06 and ’08 elections. There’s a statute of limitations on how long you can run against President Bush. They’ve been in office 18 months now. We’ve seen them lay out a budget that would double the national debt in five years and triple it in 10. We’ve seen them hire over a quarter-million new federal employees by borrowing money from our children and grandchildren. We’ve seen them borrow a trillion dollars for a stimulus package that was sold to those who voted for it as a way of keeping unemployment below 8 percent. That has clearly failed.
“And they continue these sort of government-to-government pump-priming efforts — for example, this afternoon we’re going to have a vote on one more stimulus for state governments, in the form of FMAP and teachers. Suffice it to say Republicans don’t support those things, and would do everything we could to stop these failed policies that just seem to me to be continuing ad nauseum with no evidence that they’re working.”
The Hill: Following up on that point, though, what did Republicans learn about the election? OK, 2006 and 2008 is over, but a lot of people said the GOP lost its way a bit, and the voters expressed that in those elections.
McConnell: “The voters are interested in what’s happened in the last year and a half. They know who’s in charge. They know who’s in the White House. They know the president has a big majority in the House and a big majority in the Senate, and they’ve focused fully on what’s happened in the last year and a half. And it is naïve of our friends on the other side to assume they can run again the ’06 and ’08 elections. This is going to be about the present, not the past. And about the record of this administration, not the previous administration.”
The Hill: Going forward, what can the Republicans do to make the Senate functional?
McConnell: “I would question the assumption. I mean, the Senate is making it difficult to do the wrong thing. I don’t run into voters who tell me that we ought to keep doing what we’ve been doing the last year and a half. Much of the challenge the majority has had is that they’re refusing to pay for anything. Every idea further adds to the deficit. It’s sort of a skinnied-down version of the stimulus. And look, if they can’t find a way to pay for something like unemployment insurance, which almost all of us are in favor of, what will they pay for? Will they pay for anything?”
The Hill: But the FMAP package is paid for.
McConnell: “Well, we’ll take a look at the pay-fors. But the problem is, the purpose of it, whether it’s paid for or not, is to continue to make federal government-to-state government transfers, which has been at the heart of their goal. If you’ve been in the public sector for the last year and a half, you haven’t had it nearly as bad as if you’ve been in the private sector… Private sector growth is tepid. In fact, most Americans think we’re still in a recession. We will not get new revenue for the federal government until we get a vibrant, growing private sector.
“Let’s look at it this way: Fifty percent of small business income is in these top two brackets that they would raise. In addition to that, they would raise capital gains rates and dividend rates. In addition to that, you’ve got the aftermath of the healthcare bill, which the administration has now admitted is a tax in the lawsuit precipitated by the state attorneys general. So they’ve got healthcare taxes on top of everything else. And then there’s this burdensome paperwork… And the administration wonders why people aren’t hiring? This is a very, very anti-business administration. They seem to think you can throw anything you want at the private sector you want to, and they’re going to keep on growing. Well, it doesn’t appear as if that’s the case.”
The Hill: As far as the tax cuts, [House Minority Whip] Eric Cantor [R-Va.] said on MSNBC that extending the tax cuts would add to the deficit. Do you believe that’s the case?
McConnell: “This has been tax law for 10 years. What we’re talking about is raising taxes in the middle of a recession. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find many economists who think that’s a good idea, and I’ve already explained to you the impact on small businesses. So I think it’s a bad idea to raise taxes in the middle of a recession. Look, the only way to have any kind of serious impact on this deficit other than cutting spending is to get the economy growing again. When the economy grows, people have jobs, they pay taxes. And the government benefits from that. We have this tepid growth now. They’ve tried all of these pump-priming efforts with borrowed money. Why not shift directions and try to stimulate the private sector in the ways that’s typically done — without tax increases, fewer regulations and the like?
The Hill: You’ve been remarkably successful at keeping your caucus united on vote after vote, especially lately. But there have been times going back to the stimulus bill in February ’09 when [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] has been able to pick off [Sens.] [Scott] Brown or [Susan] Collins or Olympia Snowe. I’m interested how you take that personally.
McConnell: “I don’t take it personally….We move on to the next issue. There’s a constant flow of issues here. My view is that the next vote is the most important vote, and we’ve had remarkable success in the last year and a half. I don’t think there’s any question the American people understand that we’re not in favor of what [Democrats] are doing, and I think that’s a big part of a mid-course correction, for people to have a sense that not everybody up here believes this is the right direction for the country to take.”
The Hill: Sen. [Jon] Kyl [R-Ariz.] and Sen. [Lindsey] Graham [R-S.C.] have talked in recent days have talked about the 14th Amendment regarding the law as far as [children whose parents] are here illegally. Do you support changing that?
McConnell: “I think we ought to take a look at it, hold hearings, listen to the experts on it… I haven’t made a final decision about it, but that’s clearly something we ought to look at, because regardless of how you feel about the various aspects of immigration reform, I don’t think anybody thinks that’s something they’re comfortable with. Still, the first thing that has to be done is secure the border. That’s the way you get the credibility to deal with other aspects of the problem.”
The Hill: After the 2006 and 2008 election, the Republican Party was down but is now looking better, especially in the next cycle when 20 Democrats will be up versus only 10 Republicans. In terms of a leadership philosophy, how do you deal with the tough times?
McConnell: “We stayed together and had an argument, a discussion, over principle. And it appears as if — and we have some anecdotal evidence in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts — it appears as if the country agrees with us. The country is still right-of-center, and that would not have occurred if not for the unified and principled opposition to this spending binge that we’ve been on… That’s clearly what has changed the political environment. Had most of these measures been bipartisan, I think the American people would have been confused as to whether there was any unified opposition to it or whether everybody here thought this was the way to go.
“I think the lesson we learned is that a good debate over principle is not a bad thing… Even though some voters say, ‘Why can’t you guys all get along?’ I think the question is, ‘Get along and do what?’ Now there are things, had the president chosen to go down the middle rather than to the left, that we could have done together. He says he’s in favor of trade deals. Where are they? He says he’s in favor of nuclear power. We’re ready to do that. He says he’s in favor of clean-coal technology. We’re in favor of that. We applaud the fact that he had the judgment — after campaigning in a totally different place, and after listening to the Democratic leader of the Senate saying ‘the war is lost’ in 2007 — he had the judgment once he had the responsibility to continue Secretary [Robert] Gates in office and to complete the job in Iraq. We applaud him for that and we think he did the right thing.
“Also most of my members are supporting the effort in Afghanistan. So there are things that he is doing, and there are some things that he says he’s for that he’s not yet done that could produce more bipartisan agreement, and if there is a mid-course correction in November, I think the president will become a born-again moderate. And as we all know, there’s some precedent for that. President Clinton started off pretty far on the left, there was a mid-course correction, and now the only thing people remember from the Clinton years is welfare reform — Republican idea. A balanced budget — Republican idea. Trade deals — a Republican idea. And it actually worked out pretty well for him. He had eight years instead of four. So what I would hope, for the sake of the country, is that if there is a mid-course correction, the president will give up on his left-of-center agenda and meet us in the middle.”
The Hill: What is your relationship like with the president? How much do you talk, and do you think that will increase after November?
McConnell: “You’d have to ask him. We do go down [to the White House] periodically. I was down there last week with [other congressional leaders]. Those meetings occur periodically. He called me a few weeks ago about the START treaty. Our relationship is fine. I think, frankly, I think how much he calls me depends on how much he thinks he needs me. I don’t blame him for that. He’s had a huge number [of Democrats] in the House and a big number in the Senate, and I’m sure calling Mitch McConnell is not the first thing on his agenda every day.”
The Hill: A lot of times when Republicans are invited to the White House, to the broader audience the president looks like he’s being bipartisan but a lot of Republicans say, ‘He’s really not listening to us.”
McConnell: “No, he’s not. But it’s because he’s had these big numbers, and he hasn’t felt the need to deal with us. And we’ll see what the American people will do this November, but that could change.”
The Hill: You’ve got two members of your caucus, Sen. [John] Ensign [R-Nev.] and Sen. [David] Vitter [R-La.], who [have had ethics controversies]. How would you compare that with what [Rep.] Charlie Rangel [D-N.Y.] is going through?
McConnell: “Well, I think we can stipulate that from time to time members of the House and Senate have had ethics committee issues. And those are being dealt with.”
The Hill: Do you believe there’s a need for earmark reform in the next Congress?
McConnell: “The most important thing is to freeze domestic, discretionary spending, and Senate Republican appropriators offered what's known as the Sessions-McCaskill language in committee. It was defeated on a party-line vote. But the majority leader said they're going to adopt the Sessions-McCaskill freeze. I think that's a step in the right direction.
“What really spends money is the total size of the pie — how much you're going to spend. The earmark debate is about executive branch vs. legislative branch discretion. Are you going to give 100 percent of the discretion to the president, or are you going to retain some for yourself. But it saves no money. The money is saved in the overall aggregate. And so I think we've made progress, and if the majority leader and the majority party come through on what he said Thursday night, we will be spending no more this year than we spent last year, and I think that's a big step in the right direction. And obviously the fact that they have 59 members, if it's done, it will be done on a bipartisan basis. But we forced it.”
The Hill: Would you stop the defense authorization bill if a repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” provision is included?
McConnell: “It’s become controversial because the advice of the secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Sen. [John] McCain [R-Ariz.] is not going to be followed — in other words, we’re not going to wait until after the [Department of Defense] study to make a decision going forward. So I couldn’t tell you right now if taking up that bill is going to be controversial or not. Sen. McCain is our leader on that.”
The Hill: If Democrats decide to use a lame-duck session to follow the president and preserve the Bush tax cuts only for people making less than $250,000, and if they do it piece-meal, would you vote against those efforts if it’s not just a full extension of current law?
McConnell: “I hate to give you the same answer I gave you before, but I’m against raising taxes in the middle of a recession. Period.”
The Hill: What did Obama call you about on the START treaty?
McConnell: “Just discussing the way forward. I think they know what they have to do on that. Sen. Kyl and Sen. [Richard] Lugar [R-Ind.] have been focused on that more than anyone else in our conference. There are some concerns about modernization of our nuclear force. There’s some things they need to do to get the Senate in a position to cast an intelligent vote on the treaty, and I think the administration knows what those are.”
The Hill: If Republicans take back the majority in next Congress or the following Congress, are you committed not to change the filibuster rules?
McConnell: “Majorities always want to change the rules. But I’ll give you a conspicuous exception: Right after the 1994 election, the most successful Republican election in 100 years, we came in here with a new Senate and House majority, and the first vote in the Senate was on a [Sen. Tom] Harkin [D-Iowa] amendment to get rid of filibuster.
“Not a single Republican voted for it. And we would have been the short-term beneficiary. The second point I would make is that at considerable difficulty, at the last public appearance Sen. [Robert] Byrd [D-W.Va.] made, he argued against that change. I rest my case. If Republicans get a majority, we will not try to gerry-rig the Senate — as, for example, [Democrats] tried to gerry-rig the fall elections with the Disclose Act.”
The Hill: Your endorsed candidate in the Kentucky Senate race was defeated by Rand Paul, the Tea Party candidate. What does that say for the influence of the Tea Party on the GOP?
McConnell: “The good news is, Rand Paul has an 8-point lead in a survey that came out [this wee]. He’s talking about spending, debt, Washington takeovers and taxes, and my state is in a very Republican mood this year, probably the most I’ve ever seen it. So I’m optimistic he’s going to win… With regard to the Tea Party factor, I think it’s been positive. These are citizens who feel like we’re losing the country, and the issues that they seem to be most concerned about are the issues that Republicans are most concerned about. And one thing I would point out is that the issues that are driving the Tea Party are the same issues that are driving surveys, and driving independents in our direction.”