Incoming Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: You Get What You Give.
HH: Joining me now, the current majority whip of the United States Senate, soon to be the minority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell from Kentucky. Senator, good to talk to you.
MM: Glad to be with you.
HH: Senator McConnell, people are a little bit surprised today to see that your teammate in the leadership will be Trent Lott. How did that come about? And how close was the vote versus Senator Lamar Alexander?
MM: It was a one vote margin. It was an interesting and spirited contest, which I chose not to be involved in. I didn’t endorse any of the other leadership races. But it was interesting, and it was close. And I look forward to working with Senator Lott. He’s been a whip in the past, and I’m sure he’ll do a fine job.
HH: I had suggested to some correspondents today that perhaps the thinking of some of your colleagues is that in the minority, you really have to have a skilled rules guy as the whip, as well as the minority leader. Did that play into the debate today?
MM: I really don’t know, but I will remind your listeners and your readers that it takes 60 votes to do just about everything in the Senate. 49 is the most robust minority. Nothing will leave the Senate that doesn’t have our imprint. We’ll either stop it if we think it’s bad for America, or shape it, hopefully right of center. So the minority leader’s job is actually a lot easier. When you’re the minority leader, you’re looking for 41 votes. When you’re the majority leader, you’re looking for 60. So Senator Reid can expect all of the cooperation that he extended us in similar circumstances. I think that, coupled with the potential for presidentialvetoes, should reassure everyone that we’re certainly not going to be run over. We didn’t have a good election day, but 51-49 is pretty darned close, and we’ve…you know, we’ve had, Hugh, close Senates in recent years. It was 50-50 in 2000, and then Jeffords went over to the Democrats, and we were down 51-49 for 18 months. And then, back up 51-49 for two years, and then 55-45 for two years, and now 51-49 down. I think the message is that American politics these days is very, very tight. Close.
HH: Well, I can’t tell you how wonderful that is to hear you say that they’ll get exactly what they gave, Senator McConnell. You have a reputation for tenaciousness earned during the campaign finance reform debates. Do you expect to be living up to that reputation in the next two years?
MM: Well, I think it’s reasonable to assume I’m not likely to be a push-over. And you know, we’ve…this sounds kind of strange to say, because obviously, I’d prefer to have 50 votes at a minimum, and be technically the majority leader, even though we wouldn’t have much of a majority. Some of my most exhilarating moments in the Senate have been while we were in the minority. And an issue you mentioned, I actually organized and carried out the last all-night, true filibuster we’ve had in the Senate. It was about six weeks before the 1994 election, where we were able to kill taxpayer funding of elections and spending limits. It was a huge headline in the Washington Post and the New York Times, Republicans Kill Campaign Reform Measure. That was six weeks before we had the best Republican Congressional election of the 20th Century. So obviously, the voters were not offended by us stopping that monstrosity.
HH: Right. Senator McConnell, today, the New York Observer quotes Chuck Schumer, your colleague from New York, as saying that judges are the most important. One more justice would have made it a 5-4 conservative, hard-right majority for a long time. That won’t happen. How do you respond to that?
MM: Well, judges are important. And we’ve gotten two Supreme Court justices. Both of them we expect to be solid conservatives in this current Congress. In addition to that, in spite of the fact that we haven’t gotten every single judge, the overall vacancy rate is 5.7%, which is lower than at any time in recent memory. The vacancy rate actually is the lowest it’s been in the last 20 years. So we have been able to get a lot of judges on the bench, and we expect to have the same kind of cooperation from them, that has previously been extended when we had divided government. Let me just give you some statistics. In the last two years of the last three presidents, all of which were in divided government, the Senate has confirmed on average 92 judicial nominees, including 17 circuit court nominees. So the precedent in recent years, when you have divided government, in the last two years of an administration of both parties, is that you are able to confirm a significant number of judicial nominees, including circuit court nominees. We expect from them the same level of cooperation we extended to President Clinton. We decided he’d been elected president, and we were not entitled to deny him all of his judges. Elections do have consequences, and in the last two years of the Clinton administration, when we had 55 Republicans in the Senate, we still confirmed over 70 of his judicial nominees, including 15 circuit court nominees. Now a lot of conservatives would say why did you do that. Well, the reason we did it, he won the election. And President Bush won the election, and we expect the same level of cooperation from them, as we gave them under similar circumstances. If we don’t get it, let me just confirm again, Hugh, that in the Senate, everything is related to everything else. The minority has a lot of power in the Senate. This is not the House of Representatives. Everything will be linked to everything else. And if they’re looking for cooperation from us in moving legislation on the floor, which they will need to be able to do anything, it’s going to be tied to fair treatment of the President’s judicial nominees.
HH: Senator McConnell, what I would love to hear you or the minority whip, Lott, or someone in leadership say over and over again is that if obstruction is the rule of Senator Leahy’s Judiciary Committee, especially as to Supreme Court justices, the next Democratic president, may it be decades away, but when the next Democratic president comes along, there will be payback.
MM: Well, sure. I mean, these precedents that are started in the Senate are almost never stopped. We were able to get the filibuster genie back in the bottle. As you know, Summer a year ago, we were able to get Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor and Priscilla Owen, who had become kind of poster children for the left, we got them all confirmed, not to mention two solid Supreme Court nominees. So I think we’ve pushed them back on the filibuster. Now the filibuster is considered something that would be done only on rare circumstances. It had become routine. So we’ll see whether they honor the most recent precedent. If they don’t, they’re going to have a lot of problems moving anything on the floor.
HH: If the filibuster comes back, either against appellate nominees or against a Supreme Court justice, will that have proven the Gang of 14 an improvident and indeed disastrous decision?
MM: Well, part of what came out of the Gang of 14 was the ability to confirm those judges that I was just talking about.
HH: Well, a lot of guys got thrown under the bus, too.
MM: You’re right. Some of them did. But the way it was going, they might have all been thrown under the bus. So there are mixed views about whether the outcome of the Gang of 14 was positive. I’m just giving you the positive part of it, which is that we got some very significant conservatives on the bench after that. We didn’t get them all.
HH: Will Peter Keisler get a vote in the lame duck session, Senator McConnell?
MM: In the lame duck? I don’t know the answer to that. We certainly expect him to get a vote, if not this year, next year. There’s absolutely no reason why he shouldn’t go forward.
HH: You are the second most important voice for Republicans in the country now, after the President and Vice President. I guess I’d say third. And so, a lot of people would like to hear what do you think happened last Tuesday?
MM: Well, much to my regret, I think the election ended up being largely a referendum on discontent with the Iraq war. I know in my own hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, which is a leftish Congressional district, we had a solid conservative Congresswoman named Ann Northup, who had managed to win and hold a district that Republicans had absolutely no reason to believe they could ever hold for ten years. She went down, principally because the Democrat just said send Bush a message on Iraq. I think that issue was the overriding issue that brought the President’s popularity down, made him with a lot of independent voters who went against us heavily, you know, kind of toxic. And so you saw both the President and the war in lots of ads in a lot of these swing districts that we needed to win in order to maintain a majority. The same thing happened in the Senate to a lesser extent. I think a better environment on the war, and we might well have been able to save George Allen in Virginia, Conrad Burns in Montana, and Jim Talent in Missouri at least.
HH: 30 seconds left, Senator McConnell, I just…will the Republican majority prevent the Democrats from cutting and running in Iraq and a 2nd Vietnam?
MM: The Republican minority, you mean?
MM: Well, we’re certainly going to follow the President’s lead on this. We’re all interested to see what the Iraq Study Group of Baker and Hamilton come up with. But I think the best solution to this problem is to succeed. And I’m going to stick with the policy that I think gives us the maximum chance of success. And remember, in closing, it’s no accident we haven’t been attacked again at home for the last five years. We haven’t been attacked because we’ve been on offense, going after these guys where they are in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
HH: Senator Mitch McConnell, thanks for the opportunity to talk. I look forward to many more conversations in the next two years, and continued good success as the minority leader.
End of interview.