Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill

Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill

By John King, USA - November 16, 2010

KING: In what you might call a little bit of Capitol Hill bipartisan, Republican senators Tom Coburn and John McCain along with Democrats Claire McCaskill and Mark Udall are trying to force a public vote on giving up earmarks, those spending projects members of Congress slip into legislation. And no shock here, there's also bipartisan push- back. Earlier today in a dig at her new Republican colleague, Senator McCaskill tweeted, "Newly elected Senator from Missouri is bucking Republican leadership by supporting earmarks while I continue to buck mine by fighting them." Senator McCaskill joins us for a progress report. Senator, you're correct in saying your new Republican colleague Roy Blunt wants to fight to keep earmarks but so does your leader, as you mentioned, Harry Reid. Your friend and colleague Sherrod Brown was on the program last night. He said, look, this won't save any money and sometimes it helps them get monies to medical clinics back home in Ohio and other critical projects in Ohio. Harry Reid who was re-elected today as your majority leader in the Senate says this about earmarks.

SEN. HARRY REID (D), MAJORITY LEADER: I think I have an obligation to the people of Nevada to do what is important to Nevada, not what is important to some bureaucrat with green eye shades here. So I'm not personally going to back off of bringing stuff back to Nevada.

KING: Now, you were for this, Senator, well before the midterm elections. But after the midterm elections, even Mitch McConnell a ong time defender of earmarks has gotten the message and says he backs a moratorium. Does Harry Reid not get it?

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), MISSOURI: I honestly think a lot of my colleagues don't get it. This isn't about the power of the purse. We have the power of the purse for the whole budget. Earmarks only began in the 1970s. This is -- it's not about whether or not you want a project funded. It should be about merit. The process is flawed. And if we can't do this, this is the easy stuff, John. This is like the change in the couch. How in the world are we going to step up and stop some of the other spending that we've got to do to balance our budget?

KING: Well, let me pick up on that point. You call this the change in the couch. You also tweeted this today. "Back in D.C., so much we need to get done. Hopeful that compromise will not be an evil word." Let's explore that. Your friend on this earmark issue, Tom Coburn, a conservative Republican, also has said he doesn't want tax increases but if it's the only way to have a serious conversation about deficit reduction, he is open to some tax increases as long as he sees spending cuts and as long as he sees Democrats willing to make some changes in social security and Medicare. Are you willing to put social security and Medicare on the table as part of an adult conversation about deficit reduction?

MCCASKILL: I think everything has to be on the table. We need to focus on not whether or not we are cutting taxes for certain levels of income but how much are we giving away, of tax dollars to people with high incomes. We have a lot of things we give away to people who are very, very wealthy in this country. And I'm not sure that our federal government can afford that. So we've got to look at all of it. And we have to be responsible about it. Frankly, earmarking is not the problem. It is a symptom of the problem. And that is, we treat this money as if it is our own instead of precious tax dollars. And we've got to be more respectful of these tax dollars, and that's what the voters were trying to tell us in November. KING: But to be clear, you talked about taxes. Social security and Medicare need to be part of the conversation also.

MCCASKILL: Absolutely. There are three legs of the stool; spending, entitlements and making the tax code fair and equitable. That's the three legs of the stool. If we do all of those in a responsible, bipartisan way, I think the American people would all be very, very happy.

KING: What about right now? After the mid-term election the president called it a shellacking. You can call it what you will. There is a debate in the Democratic Party about who are the Democrats supposed to be right now in this lame duck session? Are you supposed to be the party that still controls everything in Washington? Speaker in the house, a bigger margin in the Senate, or are you supposed to back off and shy away saying the voters sent as you message? Specifically in this lame duck, should Leader Reid bring back the repeal of don't ask don't tell, the dream act which would give citizenship benefit to children who came into this country as illegal immigrants but who went on to college. Should he try to repeal the Bush tax cuts for wealthy Americans?

MCCASKILL: I think we have to be principled but pragmatic. We have to look and see what we can get done and prioritize what we need to get done in this lame duck session. One of the thing we have to get done is a final decision on tax policy regardless which of way we decide. Just so the business community out there gets some certainty so we begin to get some of this reinvestment and private sector job creation. That has to be our priority. Now, if we have additional time and we can do more, I'm not opposed to us debating any of the things you've talked about. All of us have been on the record about them. But we've got to make the priority getting the tax policy decisions made so that we can remove that excuse from the table so we begin to get some of this investment back into job creation that's currently sitting on the sidelines.

KING: You are one of the people we who cover politics most closely watch because you're up for election in 2012. Your state just convincingly -- not only did it not vote for President Obama in 2008 but it just convincingly elected Republican Roy Blunt. The margin, 51 percent to 41 percent. When Claire McCaskill looks at what happened two weeks ago on a Tuesday, what do you see as the message of the electorate?

MCCASKILL: I think they're trying to tell us that everybody in America has been focusing on how much they're spending and they don't believe that we have done that. And to a large extent, Jeff Sessions, the Republican from Alabama and I have been trying all year to pass a cap on spending. And even though I got 17 Democratic votes for that, we were two short of getting it done. All the Republicans were voting for it. I think they want us to look at spending. I think they want to us focus on private sector job creation so we can get out of these economic doldrums we're in. I think they want to make sure we're listening. I think also, they want us to be independent and not always march to a party mandate, at least Missouri that's what they want. They want me to exercise independent judgment from my party about what is best for the people in Missouri. And I think we've got to continue to do that. I've tried to do that from the day I got here and I'll continue to do that even though it irritates the leadership in my party sometimes.

KING: You mentioned the leadership in your party. I was looking before the election at the senator Barack Obama late 2006 mid terms and it includes stops in Missouri to help Claire McCaskill pull off what was considered by many to be an upset in that campaign. Looking ahead to 2012, knowing the president's standing in your state, down quite a bit, do you envision campaigning side by side with the president or would you rather do this on your own?

MCCASKILL: You know I think the president has to really focus on getting elected to a second term in 2012. And I need to focus on making sure I'm accountable to the people of Missouri. If our paths crossing that's great but I think that's frankly kind of a political question that is not as relevant as what I can do between now and 2012 to earn the trust for the Missourians to decide to hire me for six years.

KING: We'll keep in touch during those big debates this year, next year and into that campaign. Appreciate your time tonight.

MCCASKILL: Thank you.

KING: Thank you.


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