Arizona Senator Jon Kyl on the fiscal cliff, the Rice withdrawal, changes to the filibuster rule and more
HH: With our favorite Senator, United States Senator Jon Kyl from the great state of Arizona. Senator Kyl, Merry Christmas to you, you’re stuck in Washington.
JK: Well I am, and Merry Christmas to you and all your listeners, Hugh. We thought, at least I thought, foolish me, that this weekend would be a very busy one here as we put the final wraps on the legislation to avert the fiscal cliff. But it appears that the House of Representatives has gone home. I haven’t heard any or seen any white smoke coming out of the White House here, and there’s not a whole lot to work on. But in any event, I have plenty enough to do here.
HH: I want to come back to the fiscal cliff in a second, but today, the big news is that Ambassador Rice has withdrawn her application or bid to be the secretary of state, which means all eyes are going to turn to your colleague, John Kerry. First, are you glad that Ambassador Rice did that? And second, what do you think of a Kerry nomination? And three, do you think it will get to you while you’re still in the Senate?
JK: I don’t think it’ll get to me while I’m still in the Senate. This is a matter that will be brought up next year in January. Well first of all, Secretary Clinton has to leave the office. Let’s appreciate the fact that she’s not concluded her service yet. Second, with regard to Ambassador Rice, she avoids potential embarrassment to the administration, not just because she might have had difficulty getting confirmed, but because of all of the questions that would have been raised about the Benghazi affair during the course of her confirmation. And whether the administration was a part of her decision not to be considered or not, the media will I’m sure find out. But the bottom line is they do avoid some embarrassment by her withdrawal. And as to John Kerry, I think he probably does, I’m sure he was top on the list for some people, but in any event, certainly would rise pretty close to the top now. I don’t know of others who are under consideration, more consideration than he, although it may just be a lot of press talk. But one can understand why, given his extensive background.
HH: If that happened, would you expect him to be confirmed, absent…
JK: I think he would. It’s hard for members of the Senate not to confirm their colleagues.
HH: That would mean that Scott Brown could run again, the third time in six years.
JK: Well, that’s the one little ringer, and I guarantee you a lot of people are talking about that.
HH: Now Senator, also another of your former colleagues, Chuck Hagel, is being tipped as the new secretary of Defense. How would you react to that? And what kind of skill set do people need at DOD?
JK: Well, you need a lot of different skill sets. You’d need the support of the military. You need to be a good administrator. You have to have the confidence of the President, of course. It helps to have a good working relationship with Congress. And I will say that the past two secretaries for President Obama have both been people who had the ability to work with Congress, because they were not Democratic ideologues, put it that way, people that would have a hard time working with Republicans. And that frankly has been a benefit to the President. His two secretaries of Defense have represented him well, and without a whole lot of controversy. So I’m sure he would be looking for that in former Senator Hagel. And it’s been a while since Senator Hagel has been around the Senate, and so I can’t really answer your question. There are a lot of new members here, too. But I served with Chuck, and in terms of qualifications for the job, he certainly has them.
HH: Now Senator, last time you were on, you talked me out of an evolving position towards saying hey, just go over the cliff, because you trained my attention on the Department of Defense. And since then, I’ve talked to Tom Donnelly and Mackenzie Eaglen, and all these different defense people, and they 100% agreed with you that this is a disaster for the Pentagon. Why haven’t your Republican colleagues in the House simply sent over to the Senate a bill that exempts Pentagon from this crack-up?
JK: Well, because they want to save $109 billion dollars this year. That’s what the law requires. And they don’t want to just exempt half of the savings from occurring. And frankly, neither do I. But the answer is not to throw over the law that was passed, but rather to find the savings or in other ways that don’t just throw off the old law, ensure that the Pentagon will be funded. Now if you raised taxes, for example, you can apply that revenue to offset the sequester as well. That’s not my preferred method, but you can do it either through raising revenues or through effectuating spending, or a combination of the two. So I don’t know why the President, who assured Mitt Romney that we weren’t going to have a Defense sequester hasn’t spoken out about this. I’m more miffed by the President than I am House Republicans. They’re waiting for the President to make good on his commitment that we weren’t going to have a sequester. And all he has to do is to signal to his friends on the Democratic side of the aisle that he would accept some savings as a way to meet the obligations of the current law and avoid sequester.
HH: Now at this very hour, the Speaker is over at the White House talking with the President, Senator Kyl, and I’m just curious, what do you make of this fiasco? Because I’m not going to rag on the Speaker, but we’re not selling a Republican message or a conservative message very well out here. No one is. And what do you think has happened? And what do you expect will happen?
JK: I think you’re right about selling the message. In fact, we have forgotten about three of the important message, and it’s not just messages. It’s policy. You mentioned one of them – sequestration. Another one, is anyone worried about the small business folks? They are precisely the target of the increase in the upper two bracket and capital gains and dividends tax increases. And third, of course, you remember the President has talked about a balanced approach to this, both revenue and savings? Where’s the savings? Where’s the entitlement reform? You haven’t heard anything about it. So in all three respects, Republicans can’t expect the Democrats to be talking about these things, or certainly the media to cover it. So we should be talking more about it than we are. As to where talks between Speaker Boehner and the President are, I have no idea. I can only surmise, and this is just a personal opinion, that very little good can come of it, because I think the President’s view is I win either way. If we go over the cliff, I win. If I extract all the commitments I’m seeking from the Republicans, I win. Why would I want to give them anything? So I’m not quite sure what’s in it for Boehner to be there. But of course, if…you shouldn’t stop talking. The thing that concerns a lot of us over here is that until those talks in effect break down, the House isn’t going to act. And then we can’t act here in the Senate. And we were kind of hoping to go home for Christmas.
HH: I don’t think that’s…
JK: And nothing’s going to get done. It’s going to take a week to get all this stuff done, even if there’s an agreement on something.
HH: Now I’m talking with Senator Jon Kyl from Arizona. Senator, for the benefit of the people who wouldn’t know this, you probably spent more time in meetings about entitlement reform over the last two years than anyone else in the United States Senate or House, at least tied with them, because you were on the Supercommittee. And before that, you’ve always made this, and of course, you’re the minority whip. What are the key things you think could be done that you could get the votes for, if the President would just simply say on entitlement reform, and I always think about raising the Social Security retirement age. But what are those key things to do?
JK: Just limiting it to entitlement reform and focus primarily on Medicare. The two relatively easy things are imposition of a different CPI. The current consumer price index does not accurately measure the increase in prices of things. There’s something called the chained CPI that does a more accurate measurement. That would save some money. Not much in the first ten years, but starting in about ten years, it would save a lot of money. Secondly, adjusting the age so that it’s the equivalent of the Social Security eligibility. We are living a lot longer now, and we’re much healthier, and Medicare could cut in just a little bit later than it does now. It would take years and years and years to effectuate that, but it would be, you know, just a month as a time over a very long period of time. Third, there are savings that everyone recognizes are available just in the way the programs are administered. And you could also means test some of the benefits that are currently provided to everybody. For the more wealthy folks, they could pay a little more for them, for example. But at the end of the day, the real reform for Medicare has to be in the way that the care is delivered. And there are two conflictions schools of thought on that. There is the government, top down theory, namely. We will figure out how to practice medicine, and make all the doctors and hospitals and everybody else in the country do it our way, and thereby save money. That’s what they do with the Indian Health Service. And I guarantee you it doesn’t work. The other alternative is the market. You decide how much the government is going to support the market, and you provide that care in such a way that people who need it the most get it. People that can afford to pay a little more pay for it. But you let the insurance companies and the private sector, the hospitals, the physicians and all the others, decide based upon the incentives of the marketplace, namely getting business, and thereby making some money, what kind of service to offer, and at what price. And what you’ve seen in Medicare Part D and Medicare Advantage are enormous savings and great programs that seniors love at very competitive prices, because the millions of decisions made very day in the private sector are far superior to some government bureaucrats that are trying to figure out how to practice medicine.
HH: See, I think you’ve just done in two minutes more than every Republican in the Beltway has been messaging for the last couple of weeks. And so I’m glad to hear you say that. Turn your attention, if you would, and you may not even have a dog in this fight except as an alum, but the Senate filibuster and procedural rules are still much debated. Which way is that train headed?
JK: You know, every American has a stake in this. If you want a voice in the United States Senate, you care about the rules. It’s not the Senator. It’s our constituents that are voiceless if we can’t offer amendments, for example. And that’s what the minority is concerned about. We’re not able to offer amendments very often, because the majority leader has a parliamentary way of denying that.
HH: Senator Kyl, can I hold you over for a second?
HH: I’ll be right back with Jon Kyl. Don’t go anywhere, America.
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HH: Senator, when we went to break, we were talking about the effort by Harry Reid to change the rules of the Senate. And you were talking about the right to make amendments. So pick up there and tell us what the debate is over, and where it’s headed.
JK: Yes, even though I won’t be in the Senate, this is very important to me, because I am a constituent. I’m a voter. I care. And I won’t have a voice if my two Senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, are not able to offer amendments in the United States Senate. The way the majority leader now runs things in the Senate is that he decides whether you get to offer any amendments or not, and what they are. That’s not right. It’s not the way the Senate’s operated for over 200 years. And what the Democrat leader and others are proposing is since they can’t change the rules, they can’t get the two-thirds vote necessary to do that, they will break the rules in order to change the rules. They’ll use a parliamentary trick that, it’s called the nuclear option to get that done. So there are Senators, and frankly, I’m part of the group that are meeting to try to find ways around this impasse. And there’s a lot of goodwill on both sides. Even Democratic colleagues recognize that it would be just a horrible precedent to break the rules in order to change the rules. They want to avoid that result, too. So there are conversations going on, and I am mildly optimistic that we’ll be able to find a way before we leave for Christmas here to avert the catastrophe, to avoid the nuclear option. And when the Senate convenes next year, they’ll have some slightly different procedures to operate under that will not break the rules, will give the Democrats a little bit more flexibility in how they proceed to a bill, but will give Republicans a little more comfort that they can get amendments up.
HH: Oh, very good. Now how about good news on the immigration front? Your colleague, Marco Rubio, was on with me yesterday talking about his desire not to have a huge bill, but have a series of small bills. But the President is being tipped as having a huge bill about ready to be launched at the Senate.
HH: What do you think? And what would you prefer?
JK: Well, I have a lot of confidence, first of all, in Senator Rubio. There are others. I mentioned my colleagues McCain and Flake. They’ve both been involved in this issue as well. I’ve always thought it would be better to have a smaller, you know, one bite at a time. In the past, that hasn’t been possible. But I do fear a comprehensive bill that’s effectively just thrown right out in the middle of the Senate floor or the House floor, and the President saying take it or leave it. And if you don’t take it, then obviously you’re a bigot or you’re against Hispanics or whatever, for political purposes. That isn’t going to work. So I think the only way this works is if people put the politics behind them. I hope the President can.
HH: And a last question, Senator Kyl. Obviously, you’re cleaning out the office. And it’s got to be quite an emotional time for you, eighteen years in the United States Senate, longer on the Hill. What do you do after this? Are you going to take a long vacation? Or are you going right to work somewhere?
JK: I’m going right to work somewhere. I don’t know where, but I think I’ll still be involved in public policy issues. I will be in Washington part of the time. I intend to remain active, and hopefully will even be able to visit with you now and then.
HH: I hope you’ll come back.
JK: I would look forward to that.
HH: Oh, I lied. One last question. There’s a referendum on Saturday in Egypt, and I don’t know that anyone is paying attention. I talked to Mark Steyn about it in the first hour. How significant is that vote? And what do you think is going on in that country?
JK: Well, I wish I knew. It’s really significant, because in effect, it would be rubber stamping a constitution that was illegitimately written. And so I don’t know how the Egyptian people are going to react to all of that. But that would be another nail in the coffin of real democracy in Egypt. It’s a new constitution that embodies a lot of the principles of Shariah law, for example, and gives the President a lot more power and so on. Mark Steyn’s a real pro in evaluating things like that, and there are others as well. So I’m probably not the best person to ask about it, but it’s just another area of cause for concern in the Middle East when Islamists, or those who adhere to political Islam, gain control of the levers of power, you can sometimes have an election. But frequently, it’s the last election.
HH: Senator Jon Kyl, Merry Christmas to you, thank you for joining me on an extended conversation today.
JK: Thank you.
HH: Have a great trip home. I hope you get home soon.
End of interview.