Arizona Senator Jon Kyl on the ISG report.
HH: Joined now from Washington, D.C. by our favorite Senator, Jon Kyl of the great state of Arizona. Senator Kyl, great to speak with you again. Merry Christmas to you.
JK: And Merry Christmas to you, Hugh, and all of your listeners.
HH: Yeah, well, it’s always good to talk with you, Senator. You’ve managed to get back and get some stuff done last week. Before we look forward, let’s look backward at the last bit of work the Senate and the House accomplished last week. It’s actually kind of important, in many respects.
JK: It was, and it’s a mix of good and bad. But at the end, that’s what legislating is all about. You give some to get some. And what we did was extend several of the important tax provisions that helped stimulate good…for example, research and development, and a deduction for a parent sending their kid to school, and other good provisions. So all in all, even though there was the inevitable pork that crept in here and there, there wasn’t nearly as much of it as there might have been. And we basically, I think, did some good.
HH: You also managed to extend the amount of money people could put into health savings accounts, Senator.
JK: That’s right. And that’s…
HH: I think that’s a big deal.
JK: That was an important provision. Actually, there’s a provision that we had to give that I didn’t like, that related to the government picking up some pension costs for people that used to work in mines, and pick up health and pension costs. But in exchange for that, we got some really good changes to the health savings accounts, which will make them work better in the future. There are some problems with the way that they actually work right now, and these…they’re called technical changes. But they really will afford companies an opportunity to provide a much better product to people.
HH: Now let’s look a little bit forward, Senator Kyl. Obviously, when you return, are you going to be the conference chair?
JK: I will be the conference chair for the Republicans in the Senate. That’s identified as the number three leadership post, and it gives me an opportunity to continue to serve my colleagues the Republican side.
HH: Well, congratulations.
JK: Thank you.
HH: When we spoke after your re-election, you kind of hinted there might be a surprise in the leadership, and I’m glad it wasn’t you, but that it was number two, Trent Lott back.
JK: Well, that’s right. Yeah, I didn’t want to speak for Trent, but he had decided to reclaim his old position as the whip, or assistant leader, and was successful by one vote over our good colleague, Lamar Alexander. But I supported Trent because he’s a first team player, and when you’re in the situation we’re in now, in the minority, you need to have your best players on the field.
HH: And what’s that…go to the rules and to the ability to make the body work or not work, as the case may require?
JK: Trent is an experienced leader. He served in the leadership in the House, he’s served as majority leader and minority…as whip in the Senate. So he knows a lot of the ins and outs of how to work the floor of the Senate, how to get things done, and in some cases, how to stop bad things from being done. And with that kind of knowledge, and in the minority position we’re in now, I felt that we needed that strong leadership.
HH: Okay, one more thing looking back before we look forward. The ISG report, you co-authored, with Jim Woolsley, a letter released by the Center For Security Policy over the weekend, which was pretty harsh about the report. I welcomed it, a lot of people did. Are you a lonely voice in the Senate? Or are a lot of your colleagues scratching their head right now about what the Baker-Hamilton commission did?
JK: No, I really believe that a lot of us viewed the report as not really breaking any particular new ground, except in the recommendation that we negotiate with the Iranians and the Syrians, and that we need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a part of what’s going on in Iraq. I think that latter point is misplaced. The Sunnis and the Shiia…I mean, they are…the administration’s opponents like to talk about this as a civil war. To the extent that it is a conflict among Iraqis, it has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So it seemed to me that that was a misguided recommendation. But the more serious one had to do with the suggestion that we negotiate with the Iranians without any real clear guideline as to what it is that we might expect they would want us to give up. And I think unless you start negotiations knowing what the parameters are, what you’re going to have to give up to get something, it’s a pretty dangerous proposition.
HH: Senator Kyl, today, they’re holding an anti-Holocaust conference, a Holocaust revision conference there. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be wiped off the map many times. What did they think we could negotiate with them about? The years left on the Israeli lease? Is that what it was?
JK: It’s…I take your point. And I wish they had been more clear. You know, their whole point is well, when nothing else seems to be evident as a solution, maybe we should talk. The reality is that we communicate messages to the Iranians all the time, and they to us, and to the Syrians as well. That’s different from negotiating. And we know where they stand. We know that they are creating huge problems for us in Iraq today. But what we ought to be doing is demonstrating to them the seriousness of our purpose to get them to stop, rather than suggesting that maybe we’ll sit down and talk with them. I mean, if I were them, I’d be licking their chops about what to ask us for. We’d be happy to help you all if you’ll just get off our backs about this nuclear weapon we’re going to build. Well, you see, it doesn’t get you very much, and it creates the false impression that you’re really doing something, when in fact, you’re not.
HH: Now let’s go back to the Senate for a moment, Senator Kyl. Obviously, when you return in January, you’re going to be in the minority, and on the Judiciary Committee, that means Senator Leahy. Have there been any conversations yet about how that’s going to work?
JK: There have. Senator Specter and Senator Leahy have talked, and my understanding is, I haven’t heard this directly from Leahy, but that he has set a policy of only having one hearing on judicial nominees per month, at which there would presumably be four district court nominees, and one circuit court nominee. If you do the math, that is a very small number of nominees that we could get passed, assuming that we confirm every single one of those people. There’s already a backlog, there are a bunch of new positions that need to be filled, and at that pace, it would be impossible, I think, to fill all of the vacancies that either are, or will become vacant. So this is not a good beginning to a bipartisan cooperation in the confirmation of judges.
HH: One circuit court judge, which would mean twelve a year max, and of course, not much happens there in December or August, so it’s really more like ten, isn’t it?
JK: That’s correct. And then, when you get to about the middle of next year, being…not next year, but the year after that, you’re in a presidential election year. And traditionally, things pretty well grind to a halt in that year. So you’d really only be talking about roughly sixteen to seventeen circuit court judges, and I’m sure there’ll be a lot more vacancies than that.
HH: Let me ask you a little bit further about that. Does the Republican minority intend to use its leverage to perhaps change that pace?
JK: Yes. Our leader, Mitch McConnell, has made it very clear that one of the prerogatives of the minority is to delay or to object to unanimous consent requests…the leadership of the Senate has to ask unanimous consent to do almost everything. And one thing that we have the ability to do is simply say no, we’re going to object to that. And until you confirm these, or at least put on the schedule the following three judges, for example, to have a vote before the end of the week, we will be objecting to everything that you want to do this week. So why don’t we just go ahead and get that done right now. That’ll be his approach, and it worked when the Democrats were in the minority, when Trent Lott was in the majority, and Bill Clinton’s nominees were before us. Before he could do certain things, he had to agree to have votes on judicial nominations, and we can do the same.
HH: Excellent. Now going forward in terms of defense policy, after the ISG report comes down, how is the case going to be made for the war and its importance, Senator Kyl, when the gavel’s out of every hand that matters, in my view?
JK: First, we still have the President, and he’s got the big megaphone, as they say. Secondly, there are 49 Republicans in the Senate, and a lot of us in the House. We can clearly be conveying the message. And third, at least in the Senate, nothing happens if you don’t have at least some bipartisanship. And I don’t think that Democrats are going to be able to carry the day on really offensive actions like cutting military spending, or things of that sort. So I think we’ll be able to hold our own. The key is for us to continue this education process, to ensure that people around the world, and even some here in the United States that have forgotten, or didn’t appreciate significantly, understand the nature of the threat of this Islamic fundamentalism, or Islamo-facism, whatever you want to call it. It’s a very dangerous threat to our country, and we haven’t done a good enough job exposing that threat. And I think that’s one of the reasons people want to pull out of Iraq, because they don’t appreciate the context in which the Iraq battle is being fought.
HH: The opportunity out there for the process to educate going forward, in the course of the presidential campaign, seems to me to be very large. It also seems to me, and I wonder if you concur, Senator Kyl, that that campain’s begun.
JK: It seems to have begun, and the opportunity is significant. Of course, hopefully, a lot of things will have occurred between now and the time that the final decisions are being made as to who the president’s going to be. We’re talking probably about 20 months from now. A great deal must happen in the meantime. But for example, you’ve got some presidential candidates that have very different positions. You’ve got John McCain on one hand saying that this is serious, you don’t go to war unless you intend to win, and you need to do what it takes to win, and we’ve got to win, or the consequences would be devastating. And on the other side, virtually all of the Democrats are saying the main thing we’ve got to do is figure out a way to get out. Well, those are two very different views.
HH: Now have you declared yet for Senator McCain? Or are you waiting for a while?
JK: Well, Senator McCain, first of all, will go through the process of making his announcements, and all that sort of thing. But he has asked me to help him, and I will.
HH: Oh, that’s very excellent. What do you make of the other people in the race, with 30 seconds, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Jon Kyl?
JK: Well, Hugh, you mentioned the Republicans first. They’re both great guys, and there are some other great Republicans, some of my colleagues in the Senate as well. Naturally, I’m a bit more critical of my Democratic friends, who are also throwing their hat in the ring.
HH: Jon Kyl, a pleasure to end 2006 with you. We look forward to many conversations in 2007.
End of interview.