Minority Leader McConnell and Senator Schumer on "Meet the Press"

Minority Leader McConnell and Senator Schumer on "Meet the Press"

By Meet the Press - May 16, 2010

MR. GREGORY: Good morning. Twenty-six days after the BP oil rig explosion in the Gulf, another attempt to stop the massive oil leak failed yesterday as BP tried a procedure to siphon oil to a ship. But the pipe connection didn't work. This as federal officials sought assurances from BP that it will live up to its promise to cover individual compensation claims. With us to discuss this and a host of other issues Washington is now confronting, New York Senator Chuck Schumer.

Welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): Glad to be back once again.

MR. GREGORY: The president spoke about BP, he spoke about the oil spill on Friday, and he got mad.


MR. GREGORY: This is what he had to say.

(Videotape, Friday)

PRES. BARACK OBAMA: I know BP has committed to pay for the response effort, and we will hold them to their obligation. I have to say, though, I did not appreciate what I considered to be a ridiculous spectacle during the congressional hearings into this matter. You had executives with BP and Transocean and Halliburton falling over each other to point the finger of blame at somebody else. The American people could not have been impressed with that display, and I certainly wasn't.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: He got angry. So now what should the government be doing, Senator?

SEN. SCHUMER: Well, a couple of things. First, you have to make sure BP pays for the whole thing. It's their fault, the taxpayers should not have to be behind this.

MR. GREGORY: Should there be any cap on the damages they pay?

SEN. SCHUMER: I don't believe there should be. I would...

MR. GREGORY: Because right now it's $75 million.

SEN. SCHUMER: There's an effort in Congress to remove that cap, and I think it'll pass.

MR. GREGORY: What else would the government do? Is it a question of more regulation?

SEN. SCHUMER: I think it is. Somebody has to look over the oil companies' shoulders. And the president, to his credit, said that the federal watchdog wasn't a good enough watchdog. Obviously, something failed dramatically here. There ought to be a fail-safe mechanism and then there ought to be a backup fail-safe mechanism because if you, if you don't have it, look at the damage. And it can last for years and years and years, and it also changes all the politics. You look at a climate change bill, it's going to be harder to get one done given the oil spill, given that drilling off the coast was part of the compromise.

MR. GREGORY: And--right. And the president was for that compromise, now that's been tabled. But look at our NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, what it found about offshore drilling. It is still very popular. Sixty percent say they support it. And yet, the politics are bad on this now.

SEN. SCHUMER: Well, you have to come up with assurances of people that this wouldn't happen again. Now, you know, just before this happened people would come in who were for offshore drilling and say nothing bad has happened in the Gulf, at least, for 30 or 40 years. Can't say that anymore, and it changes the balance. And my guess is gradually those poll numbers will reflect that. Americans want to be independent to foreign oil. That's right. It's killing us both economically, foreign policywise, and everything else to take people--countries like Iran and Venezuela that hate us and make them rich. So everyone is now looking anew at domestic sources of energy production. Clean energy would be the priority, but people are looking at others--nuclear, offshore, things like that. And that's going to continue. But people want to make sure that if we're going to do it, it's going to be a lot better and a lot safer than what happened in the Gulf.

MR. GREGORY: Let me turn to the nomination of Elena Kagan to be the next Supreme Court justice. Here she is back in 1993 in the committee room. She worked, of course, for Senator Biden, who was chairman at the time. There she is. And she had--she saw it up close, and she had some pretty direct things to say about it. This was an article she penned for the University of Chicago Law Review, during which she said, in recent hearings--"If recent hearings lacked acrimony, they also lacked seriousness and substance. ... When the Senate ceases to engage nominees in meaningful discussion of legal issues, the confirmation process takes on an air of vacuity and farce, and the Senate becomes incapable of either properly evaluating nominees or appropriately educating the public." You've met with her. With that in mind, do you think she is prepared to reveal more than she might otherwise about her legal views and philosophy?

SEN. SCHUMER: Yeah. I think that's the right thing to do. I said that when there were Republican nominees from George Bush, and I believe it with Democratic nominees. These hearings should not be a farce and should not be, "What's your favorite movie or restaurant?" They should talk about judicial ideology and philosophy. Obviously, you can't pin--try to pin someone down on what might be an upcoming case. But knowing how they think, how they reason, what's their view of settled law, these are all very legitimate questions, and the hearings would be much less if they weren't asked.

MR. GREGORY: What do you specifically want to know?

SEN. SCHUMER: Well, the first thing I want to know is just how she balances things. What I really like about Elena Kagan is she's a practical person. You know, we have eight justices who were judges above all. Sometimes when you have people way up there in that rarified ivory tower, they forget the practical consequences of their decisions on businesses, on local governments, on people. To have someone practical, someone who ran a big legal business, Harvard Law School--which she ran by all reports very well, $160 million budget, 500 people.

MR. GREGORY: That's pretty rarified air, though, Harvard Law School.

SEN. SCHUMER: Yeah, but...

MR. GREGORY: You say that the judges are living in rarified air.

SEN. SCHUMER: Yeah, but, you know, it's a lot of practical concerns. One of the things she had to do, which she may have to do on the court, is bring the conservative and liberal factions together. And both sides said she did a very good job.

MR. GREGORY: But do...

SEN. SCHUMER: So I want to see how--and I hope, and I--it's my hope and belief, this practical person will help bring the court down to earth a little bit.

MR. GREGORY: Well, so talk about that. What, what does she mean for the overall direction of the court?


MR. GREGORY: Is she a liberal or is she a moderate?

SEN. SCHUMER: I--look, I think she's--she tends to be a moderate when you look at her writings. But I think that's less important. When the president called me and asked me what was the number one criteria for a nominee--this was before he chose Kagan--I said I think it should be somebody who will be in the majority of five rather than the minority of four; someone who'll have the--not only the intellect--and everyone says she's brilliant--but the force of personality, the practicality to try and create coalitions. I think a lot of us, at least on the Democratic side, were shocked by the Citizens United case, for instance. And...

MR. GREGORY: Just remind people, this was about political contributions.

SEN. SCHUMER: This is the case that said unlimited corporate money could flow into our politics undisclosed in any way, and it's really--I mean, the First Amendment's important, but so is the sanctity of our political process, so that the average person has a say. And I was shocked at this. Maybe a Kagan on the court could have persuaded a Justice Kennedy that the practical--you know, the abstract notion of First Amendment triumphs everything has a balance, and the balance is the practical effects of that. And my hope would be she would do it, and that's what I'm looking for.


SEN. SCHUMER: I'd like to see someone who would be effective at that.

MR. GREGORY: As you know, there are liberals who are concerned about her view of executive power, that she might be closer to the Bush administration, frankly, on what the executive can do with regard to a war on terror.


MR. GREGORY: And she might actually hold up some views that the Obama administration has put forward with regard to a robust executive power with regard to the war on terror. Is that a concern?

SEN. SCHUMER: It's certainly a concern. It will be an area of questioning. But, again, I think that Elena Kagan, as both brilliant and practical--those are the two watchwords that I would ascribe to her in looking at her record, as I have a little bit, meeting her this week--will sort of come to a balance. I, I like balance. I don't like judges too far right, but I don't like them too far left. They tend to want to impose their own views and ideology.

MR. GREGORY: The Republicans have said she's a blank slate, she doesn't have judicial experience. Take that on.

SEN. SCHUMER: She doesn't have judicial experience, but she has a lot of experience, a lot of practical experience. She's hardly a blank slate. You'll look at all of her writings, she wrote many articles as a professor. What she did when she was working in the Clinton White House, that's all going to be available--Freedom of Information--to the Kennedy Library--or the Clinton Library has been put forward. There'll be plenty of information about her. And this idea that she has to be a judge and has judicial writing, some of our greatest justices had no judicial--Justice Marshall, Justice Frankfurter, Justice Jackson. Rehnquist, who many conservatives would consider a great justice, had about as much judicial experience as Kagan has.

MR. GREGORY: Couple of issues in our couple of minutes left. Terrorism and homeland security funding has become a hot button issue...

SEN. SCHUMER: Yes, it has.

MR. GREGORY: ...for you and for New Yorkers. Here is the New York Post after the administration said it would cut back some of that funding. "Obama to New York: Drop Dead.

"That was the message Team Obama sent - loud and clear - yesterday in slashing anti-terror funding for the city." You put out a pretty blistering statement as well.


MR. GREGORY: And we'll put that up on the screen. "For the administration to announce these cuts two weeks after the attempted Times Square bombing shows they just don't get it and are not doing right by New York City on anti-terrorism funding." You say it was cut by 27 percent. Secretary Napolitano of Homeland Security says, "Hey, wait a minute. New York has unused anti-terror funding available to it now." And you got additional stimulus money to help in this regard. What's at issue here?

SEN. SCHUMER: OK, what, what's at issue is two things. First, it's changed. We've learned since Christmas, with the Christmas bomber, Abdulmutallab, and, of course, with the attempted--thank God it missed--horrible attempt in Times Square, that, A, New York is really the target. It's not one of 50 targets; we're the number one target. And second, that there's a group, Pakistan Taliban, that has the capability of trying to do something. They came all too close. And so the funding should change. Should New York get only 12 percent of the port anti-terrorism security funding? You know, Secretary Napolitano points out that not all the money is spent. That's how Washington works. Bottom line is, a lot of the money hasn't been spent because FEMA, an agency under the jurisdiction of the Homeland Security, hasn't spent it.

MR. GREGORY: But, Senator, a lot of people don't like how Washington works. If you haven't spent all the money why do you need more money now?

SEN. SCHUMER: No. OK. Well, we have spent it, it just hasn't been spent out.


SEN. SCHUMER: In other words, when you do a three-year contract to put in radiation detectors, she's saying "Well, years two and three haven't been spent yet." That's true. But they've been accounted for. And when FEMA, a federal agency, is holding it up, you can't blame--that's true. People don't like the way Washington works and that's an example. Look, here's what I think, David. The president gets it. He came to New York, he showed responsibility. What happened here is sort of bureaucrats and bean counters at OMB and maybe Homeland Security were doing business as usual, following through on a formula that had been put in place before December. We have a new round of anti-terror funding, the largest pot called UASI. I've asked the administration, I've spoken to the highest levels, to move New York's percentage up from 18 to 25, which is what it was in 2005. We do that, we can make up for these cuts, and I think the mayor, myself, Peter King would be happy.

MR. GREGORY: The attorney general, Eric Holder, was here last Sunday. He refused to say whether Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be tried in New York or not. You have said this is, this is not a closed question.

SEN. SCHUMER: It is not a closed question. I, I think the chances of him been tried--of him being tried in New York are close to zero.

MR. GREGORY: Does he go to a military tribunal, case closed?

SEN. SCHUMER: Well, that'll be a question that they have to decide. The issue here is...

MR. GREGORY: What do you think, though?

SEN. SCHUMER: Well, here's what I think. I think--look, I'm tough on terrorism. I wrote the federal death penalty law that would give the death penalty to terrorists. What's the quickest and best way to do that? And I think we ought to defer to the experts on that.

MR. GREGORY: All right. Final point here is politics. Look what our poll found about who the voters' preference are for this year election, in terms of Republican or Democratic-controlled Congress. Even split, 44/44.


MR. GREGORY: The Republicans have come way back here. How about job approval for Congress? Not so good. Seventy-two percent disapprove in our poll. Should Democrats be concerned about this going into November?

SEN. SCHUMER: Of course we should, and that's why we have to focus, number one, on the issue that Americans care most about--jobs and the economy. And we are doing that. The stimulus, which was unpopular at first, now, if you look at the polls, is getting more popular. It's having its effect. Financial reform, good strong financial reform will have its effect. And let me tell you this, the American are generally optimistic. The reason the numbers are so low is because, for the first time, I think, in this recession, unlike the other nine post-World War II recessions, Americans said, "We're never going to get out of this." If by Labor Day they start seeing light at the end of the tunnel, not that we're there yet, but, "Ah, I can see where we're going to get there and get out of this and be back to the good old optimistic, prosperous America," we're going to do a lot better than people think. And that's what the numbers seem to indicate economically are going to happen. Job growth and everything else is up.

MR. GREGORY: Senator Specter, win or lose in the primary?

SEN. SCHUMER: I bet he wins by a little.

MR. GREGORY: Senator Schumer, thank you as always.

SEN. SCHUMER: Nice to talk to you.

MR. GREGORY: Joining us now from Louisville, Kentucky, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

Senator, welcome back to the program.


Good morning, David.

MR. GREGORY: I'd like to begin with the Kagan nomination. You have questioned her qualifications, suggesting correctly that she does not have judicial experience, she's never been a judge. And yet, back during the ill-fated nomination of Harriet Miers by President Bush, you were on the floor of the Senate and you said the following, "She will bring to the Court a lifetime of experience in various levels of government at the highest levels of the legal profession. ... She is well qualified to join our Nation's highest court." She wasn't a judge either, and yet you were for her.

SEN. McCONNELL: Well, I think we learned from the Harriet Miers nomination that when you're a friend of the president and you don't have any judicial experience, it makes it important to make, to make sure that you're not just going to be a rubber stamp for the administration. Really, we've had plenty of Supreme Court justices who have not had judicial experience who've done an outstanding job. It just raises a red flag. Frankly, I'm a good deal more troubled by two other things.

Number one, the, the case that Chuck Schumer mentioned, the Citizen's United case, which was a blow for the First Amendment, a very important free-speech case. Solicitor Kagan's office in the initial hearing argued that it'd be OK to ban books. And then when there was a rehearing Solicitor Kagan herself, in her first Supreme Court argument, suggested that it might be OK to ban pamphlets. I think that's very troubling, and this whole area of her view of the First Amendment and political speech is something that ought to be explored by the judiciary committee and by the full Senate.

Secondly is the issue of the military recruitment at Harvard. She took the position that Harvard should not allow military recruiters at the law school, later supported that position in a decision in the--in a, in a case in the court system that ended up with the Supreme Court ruling 8-to-nothing against the position that she took. I think these are two areas that need to be...

MR. GREGORY: All right.

SEN. McCONNELL: ...explored and will be explored by the committee.

MR. GREGORY: I, I want to unpack that a little bit, Senator, but let me go back to this issue of qualifications. Are you then satisfied that she has the level of qualifications to be on the Supreme Court?

SEN. McCONNELL: Well, look, I think that's what we go into in the hearings. There'll be lots of records that'll be reviewed from her time at the Clinton administration, from her time at Chicago Law School, at Harvard Law School. We need to let the process play out here, an orderly process, a fair process, not a rush to judgment.

MR. GREGORY: But don't you think a lot of people look at Washington and say, "This is the kind of politics that I hate." Here you were, you stood up for Harriet Miers despite the fact that she was a friend of the president. You stood up for her despite the fact she didn't have judicial experience, but when it comes to a Democratic nominee you say, "Oh wait a minute, these are real problems here that have to be explored."

SEN. McCONNELL: Look, David, the Republicans have treated Supreme Court nominees a lot better than the Democrats have. I can't think of a single Supreme Court nominee by a Democratic president who's been treated the way Robert Bork was, the way Clarence Thomas was, the way Sam Alito was, who was filibustered by the president, the vice president, the Democratic leader and the chairman of the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee. I've never filibustered a Supreme Court nomination.

MR. GREGORY: And do you think there's any impediment to Elena Kagan being confirmed this time around?

SEN. McCONNELL: Well, what I think we need to do is to find out what her record is. That's why--the hearings are not a sham. They're serious hearings. So the record will be developed before the Judiciary Committee, and then the members of the committee and, subsequently, the Senate will have an opportunity to tell us how they feel about it.

MR. GREGORY: Let's go to this--the other concern that you raised about her position about the military. So she's dean of Harvard Law School, she opposes military recruitment on campus because of the anti-discrimination policy that, that she was supporting with regard to the prohibition against gays and lesbians serving in the military. Do you think that position makes her a radical with regard to her views in the military?

SEN. McCONNELL: Well, you left out the most important point, and that was that the law, the Solomon Amendment, required that military recruiters be allowed on campus or the university give up their federal funding. So I think a more appropriate response might have been to follow the law. I think it's something we're going to look into at the committee because the decision was apparently made, "We'll take our chances on federal funding by not allowing those recruiters at Harvard Law School."

MR. GREGORY: Right. But they did, of course, have access to students through other military groups and, and veterans groups associated with campus. But my question is, do you think, as some Republicans have suggested, that she's got radical views about the military, or do you think that's an overstatement and unfair?

SEN. McCONNELL: Look, I don't know, all we know is the issue with regard to the Solomon Amendment. And I think the committee ought to look into it. I--this--the record is yet to be developed.

MR. GREGORY: Let me turn to the issue of the BP oil spill, which the president was quite angry about after the appearance by CEOs on Capitol Hill this past week, including the CEO of BP. You heard Senator Schumer say there ought to be more effort on the part of the government to look over the shoulders of the oil companies. What do you say?

SEN. McCONNELL: Well, look, we're all angry about it. This is a--an environmental disaster of gargantuan proportions, but the president's spent a whole lot of time pointing the finger at, at BP--and you should point the finger at BP and the other companies involved in it. We're also interested in knowing what the administration did. Was the Mineral Management Service a part of this administration that approved this site? It also approved this spill response plan. What kind of oversight did the administration provide during the course of the drilling? There are plenty of questions that need to be answered, and there'll be adequate time for that. But the administration's involvement in this will be a big part of the inquiry. In the meantime, we need to do everything we can to stop this spill.

MR. GREGORY: What about the issue of legitimate claims, as BP said, that it will honor? Do you think that the cap for damages should be higher now, higher than $75 million, as you heard Senator Schumer say they would propose?

SEN. McCONNELL: Well, the danger in that, of course, is that if you raise the cap too high, there will be no competition in the Gulf and you'll leave all the business to the big guys like BP. What BP has said they need to be held to, which is they're going to pay for this. They ought to pay for it, and they will pay for it. But the danger of taking the cap too high is that you end up with only massive, very large oil producers able to meet that cap and produce in the Gulf. And look, we can't walk away--and the president's not suggesting this either--from offshore drilling. As horrible as this is, it's important to remember that we get 30 percent of our oil from the Gulf and, if you shut that down, you'd have $14 gasoline.

MR. GREGORY: Let me move on to Kentucky politics, something I'm sure you're thinking about this week. This is the race that you've been engaged in, the Senate primary between the secretary of state of Kentucky, and that, of course, is Trey Grayson, against Rand Paul, who's got support from Sarah Palin and from the tea party movement. And right now, Senator, as you know, it is Rand Paul's to lose. He's up double digits. And The Washington Post had this headline this past week, and that is "The old Kentucky reign: Who will join McConnell in the Senate? Depends on how much voters like McConnell." You have really put yourself out on a limb on this race ,and the voters appear to be rejecting that. Is this a referendum on you and the establishment Republican Party?

SEN. McCONNELL: Well, it reminds me of when the president went in to Massachusetts, a state he carried by 26 points, and tried to elect the candidate running against Scott Brown. I don't think anybody seriously thinks the president won't carry Massachusetts next time. This is a race between two non-incumbents. There's been a lot of discussion about incumbency. We'll find out maybe something about incumbency Tuesday in Arkansas and, and Pennsylvania, where we have two Democratic incumbents in serious races. We don't have incumbency on the line in Kentucky. We have two non-incumbents running for an open seat. One of our senators is supporting one candidate, and one is supporting the other candidate. Whichever one ends up running the best race, I guess, will be the nominee. But most importantly, in terms of the Kentucky scene, we will have a unity rally at the state party headquarters on--next Saturday to get behind the winner and win in November.

MR. GREGORY: You're not going to be in Kentucky on election night, are you?

SEN. McCONNELL: Well, the Senate is in session on Tuesday, but I'll be at state headquarters next Saturday with the winner, and we'll all lock arms and go out and win in November.

MR. GREGORY: But you're, you're suggesting that your efforts to help Trey Grayson have not paid off, you expect Rand Paul to win?

SEN. McCONNELL: No, I don't know who's going to win. I hope it will help. I think Trey Grayson would be a stronger candidate in November. But I expect Kentucky's going to be in a pretty Republican mood this fall, and I'm optimistic that whoever wins the primary will be the next senator from Kentucky.

MR. GREGORY: What does it say, though, about the strength of the tea party movement? However large and vast that movement is, it certainly has been in evidence in the support for Rand Paul.

SEN. McCONNELL: Yeah, I think so, and it's an important movement in the country, and I think it's really going to help us in November.

MR. GREGORY: President Obama has made the point and begun to frame the argument for the midterm race, and he did it at a campaign event the other night, about how Republicans will have to hear from Democrats, how Democrats will run in the fall. This is what he said.

(Videotape, Thursday):

PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Now, after they drove the car into the ditch, made it as difficult as possible for us to pull it back, now they want the keys back. No! You can't drive! We don't want to have to go back into the ditch. We just got the car out. We just got the car out.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: How do you respond to that?

SEN. McCONNELL: Sounds like he wants to run against George Bush one more time, doesn't it? I mean, look, the administration's--the, the American people have taken a look at what this administration's done. They're running banks, insurance companies, car companies. They nationalized the student loan business, which will kill 31,000 private sector jobs. They've taken over health care. They're in amount--they're about to do to financial services what they did to health care. Their appointees over at the FCC are trying to take over the Internet. They've doubled the national debt in the last--will double the national debt in the next five years, triple it in 10. The American people are appalled by this. And in your own NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster who participates in that, and I'm paraphrasing, basically said the American people have made up their mind and it'll be very, very hard for the Democrats to change their mind. We're looking at a midcourse correction here. We'd like to see the president be the moderate he campaigned as. And I think they only want that's going to happen is that the American people send us more Republicans in the House and Senate to move this administration back to the middle in what I hope is the last two years of its only term.

MR. GREGORY: Before you go, Senator McConnell, if the economy continues to produce jobs--573,000 between January at April--it's a projected 1.72 million jobs created over a full year. If that happens, do you think President Obama deserves credit?

SEN. McCONNELL: What we know right now is there have been 3,000 private sector jobs lost when the president--since the president came to office. We know they've added 260,000 government jobs. We know the only boomtown in America is Washington because they're exploding government employment, hiring new government workers by borrowing money from our grandchildren. That isn't likely to change by November. I hope the economy is beginning to come back, but it'd have to come back a long way for anybody to believe the stimulus plan, which was sold to us to keep unemployment at 8 percent, has worked. Unemployment is at 10 percent. We're not making a whole lot of headway so far.

MR. GREGORY: Leader McConnell, we'll leave it there. Thank you very much.

SEN. McCONNELL: Thank you.


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