Interview with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

Interview with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

By John King, USA - January 7, 2011

KING: I have had a lot of fun this week getting out of the office and roaming the halls on Capitol Hill. Last night we had an exclusive conversation with the former speaker, now Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. As the first week in the new Congress wound up today I went up to the Hill again today to visit the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell.


KING: First Mr. Leader thanks for your time. Let me just ask you quickly off the top, what lesson have you learned in our first week of divided government? It sounds like after a relatively calm bipartisan lame duck session to be a lot more partisan around here again. SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: Oh I think we have a got a six to nine month opportunity here to do some things together, the tax bill and the lame duck was a good example of both sides being able to come together to prevent a tax increase on every American. That you know may be some indication that things are heading in a better direction.

I like the president's new chief of staff. I don't really know him all that well, but it strikes me that he's a guy that -- you know finally they found somebody that actually had some real, real world business experience and Gene Sperling sounds like a pretty good choice as well. So maybe the president's going to take a more centrist direction and if he does, we may be able to do some business.

KING: I was going to get to the new chief of staff in a bit because of something you said about him. Well let me get to it right now. You said -- after that was announced you actually said it's good to have Bill Daley, a business executive because up until this point in your view they don't have anybody down there who's even run a lemonade stand.

MCCONNELL: Yes, that's what I used to say about this White House, is that nobody had ever even run a lemonade stand. You know these were a bunch of college professors and former elected officials. You know maybe, maybe this is an indication that the president is going to go in a different direction. I think they are concerned about their anti-business image, which they earned. And this is a hopeful sign that maybe the president listened to the voices of the American people on November 2nd, if he did and he tries to move to the center, we can do some business on things like spending, debt, trade. There are things where we may be able to find common ground.

KING: Could they say the same thing about you though? You were pretty much a career politician, you were a prosecutor then you've been in politics. And you have a pretty significant voice in economic policy too. Couldn't they say well Mitch McConnell has never run a lemonade stand?

MCCONNELL: Sure, but I'm not the president of the United States nor do I aspire to be. And I think if you're the president of the United States, you ought to have around you people who have some real world business experience. And they clearly did not have that in the first couple of years.

KING: So I am sitting with the one Senate Republican who does not aspire to be president of the United States, that's good to know. Let's move on to serious issues over on the House side, today, the new majority flexed its muscle and brought to the floor its plan to repeal the health care plan. Is that a waste of time? You can't get that through the Senate when they pass it through the House, even if you could, the president would veto it. Is that a waste of time when you say we have a six maybe a nine month window for bipartisan progress? Why start off with what is clearly a partisan exercise?

MCCONNELL: Well I think we have to do both. We both had to make sure that the American people knew that their voices were listened to. And we believe that people that gave the majority to House Republicans and who gave us a much more significant, robust minority in the Senate want the 2,700-page monstrosity called Obama-care repealed. And so we owe them --

KING: But you can't do it.

MCCONNELL: Well, the House I hope will pass it and we can get a vote on that in the Senate and I understand Senate Democrats have written the House saying sort of make our day. Send it over to us. Well that's great, let's have the vote, put everybody on record and then we'll go forward.

KING: What happens next? Will we have repeal vote after repeal vote after repeal vote or will we have an adult conversation like you had on taxes in the lame duck. Where maybe you sit down with the Democrats and maybe you convince the Tea Party guys and the more feisty new conservatives here, we can't repeal it, so why don't we have a conservation about some changes maybe you can get the Democrats to agree on.

MCCONNELL: Yes, I don't think there's much chance for common ground on health care. We have a very, very different view of the way American health care ought to be handled. They have sort of a Europeanized version of it that they jammed through without a single Republican vote in the last Congress. To be perfectly candid with you John, I don't see health care is an area where there's going to be bipartisan cooperation. We have a very different world view of the way we ought to handle that issue.

KING: You're going to have to have a vote to increase the government's debt ceiling, the ability of the government to borrow money. And many conservatives, especially again the new guys who are here -- you have several in your Republican conference over here in the Senate. They're a lot more of them over in the House. They say no way, unless when they vote to increase the debt ceiling, the government's ability to borrow, they also have a very substantial package of spending cuts before them to prove the will. Name them. What would you cut?

MCCONNELL: Well I'm not going to name them today, but I mean I do think --


KING: Let me stop you there because the Republicans just ran a campaign saying we will cut spending. Why can't you name some today? Was it a hollow promise? You have to have specific cuts in mind.

MCCONNELL: Well you're asking me initially about whether we want to attach those commitments to the debt ceiling. We don't know the answer to that yet.

KING: You can't give me a couple of examples, here's what Mitch McConnell, senior senator from Kentucky, here's what Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate, if we're going to have a conversation about spending cuts, here's two or three specifics I would put on the table --


KING: -- and say where's yours.

MCCONNELL: You know we know that Republicans believe we ought to reduce our annual discretionary spending to '08 levels. That's one option. We've said to the president repeatedly --

KING: Across the board --


KING: That means cutting Pell grants, cutting --


MCCONNELL: -- craft the package at the moment. The -- we have said repeatedly and I'll say again that any time the president wants to join us in a bipartisan effort to deal with our long-term debt, entitlements, now we're ready to talk. There are a lot of things that could be done in conjunction with a decision to raise the debt ceiling that would reassure the American people that we're serious about doing something about our spending and debt.

KING: We're speaking though in a new environment. The reason I ask the question, you know Speaker Boehner last night was interviewed by Brian Williams of NBC. He said I can't think of one -- couldn't think of one off the top of his head, something he would cut. You are the leader of, as you said, a bigger Republican group over here, you have essentially veto power over the United States Senate. Do you agree that the Republicans have more responsibility now than they did a few weeks ago?


KING: So don't the American people deserve, here, I would cut X million --

MCCONNELL: I've just given you two examples. Would you like me to give them to you again? I mean we've indicated we thought spending ought to be kept -- our annual discretionary spending ought to be kept at '08 levels. That's one example. We've also said repeatedly before and since the election that if the president wants to join hands with us and do something on the long-term unfunded liability problems of entitlements, we're happy to do that. That's two examples. There may be others.

KING: On the entitlement issue, I spoke to Leader Reid right after the elections and he said he would like to do the base closing commission model. Senator Gregg (ph) on your side who is now gone, Senator Conrad on the other side proposed that essentially. You come together, you have a group, they come up with a new deal on Medicare, a new deal on Social Security, painful choices there those would be, maybe some other cuts in the government. Members have to vote up or down just like the base commission. Would you work with him to do that? Is that the right approach?

MCCONNELL: Well I think any of these things are possible. I mean one of the good things about divided government I think people in your line of work tend to focus on the problems of divided government, there are also opportunities with divided government.

KING: Do you think it's a possibility that Medicare and Social Security will not be issues in 2012 because this divided government would have dealt with them --

MCCONNELL: I think that any entitlement reform done by Democrats and Republicans jointly will not be an issue in '12.

KING: Let me talk about the relationships that we are in your suite of offices here essentially where that tax deal was cut. The vice president was up here, did a lot of the negotiating; you were deeply involved in that. Is that more of what we're going to see, negotiating over here on the Republican side and what did you learn in those negotiations that maybe you can carry forward, about the president, about the vice president, about how it should work?

MCCONNELL: And whether it becomes the operating mode on other issues in the future, I couldn't tell you, but I do think it was an indication that divided government, although we didn't have divided government yet, we were on the way to having divided government in the lame duck could be very productive.

KING: And do you see follow-up already or did it stop at that deal? You -- we've talked many times over the last couple of years and you don't have much of a relationship with the president of the United States or vice versa. You're beginning to have more contact now, but is that continuing? Is it a consistent thing or is it only when you're in the middle of a negotiation or is there an honest to god effort to get to know each other better and to trust each other --


MCCONNELL: I'm not going to send out a press release every time we have a conversation, but let me just say this. We're having a lot more conversation than we've had in the first two years.

KING: On the subject of the debt ceiling, there are some Republicans, small number, some Republicans who say if we don't get a substantial enough spending package, that would be a place to dig in your heels. The government runs out of money in March under the Continuing Resolution that you passed in the last session, on the scale of one to 10, one being unlikely, 10 being very likely, what is the prospect of a government shut down on this.

MCCONNELL: John, you know I'm not going to answer a hypothetical like that. I mean-

KING: Is it at all possible?

MCCONNELL: It's an issue that has to be dealt with, I view it as an opportunity to do something important on spending and debt. And hopefully we'll take advantage of that opportunity.

KING: Senator, thanks for your time.

MCCONNELL: Thank you.



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John King, USA

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