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Lamar Alexander on what’s next for the Republicans, and for the country this fall

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

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HH: Joined now by United States Senator, Lamar Alexander from the great state of Tennessee, number three in the Republican leadership in the United States Senate. Senator Alexander, welcome back, good to have you.

LA: Thank you, Hugh.

HH: Can you give us some sense of what’s going on in the Senate right now, and when it will conclude, and whether or not Republicans are going to get a fair shake at changing any of these things?

LA: Well, we’re getting a fair shake under the rules of the Senate. What’s going on is the Democrats are using a little used procedure to try to fix the bill that the President signed today. They would like not to have to vote for a bill with the Cornhusker kickback. They’ve also tried to increase the taxes by $50 billion, to increase the Medicare cuts by $61 billion. And in this bill that we’re working on, which is in addition to what the President signed today, they have the takeover of the student loan program. So 19 million students are going to discover that they’re being overcharged by the government to help pay for the health care programs. So that’s what we’re doing, and we want to point that out to people. When will it finish? We don’t know. We have 20 hours of debate. We’re in the middle of that. And after that, we can offer amendments. But the amendments are offered without any debate, so they’re just one right after the other.

HH: And have you got those amendments in a glide path, ready to start landing after debate closes, Lamar Alexander?

LA: Yes, we do. I mean, Judd Gregg, Senator Gregg of New Hampshire, the leading Republican on the Budget Committee, has offered the first one. That would be to say, to take any savings from Medicare, and you know, this law that the President signed today cuts Medicare by half a trillion dollars in the first ten years. And our amendment says all that Medicare savings has to be spent on Medicare. Senator McCain is on the floor today, and I’m going right back in, in just a moment, and talk with him. His amendment is to take out the sweetheart deals. We might have future amendments on the student loans, to say if there are any savings on the federal takeover of student loans, they ought to go to the students instead of overcharging the students to pay for the health care program.

HH: Okay, and so in terms of these sorts of amendments, will they all be budget-driven? Will they all have to do with taxes and spending?

LA: They all will have to do with taxes and spending. So we have to devise them in a way…the answer is yes to the question.

HH: All right, now the next thing I’d like to ask you is will there be amendments on things like Guantanamo Bay and closing that, since it will have budget impact? Or are those simply not germane?

LA: Well, that’s a very good question. They could be germane, because there’s a broad germaneness rule, because it’s anything that’s germane to the Finance Committee, and anything that’s germane to the Health and Education Committee. So that’s a pretty broad range of amendments that could be brought up. But what we’re trying to do is to focus on the amendments that are credible, responsible amendments that let the American people understand what the law did, and what this would do to make it even worse, which is to say we’re going to expand a health care delivery system, which we all know is too expensive, instead of taking steps to reduce the costs of the health care delivery system, so Americans can afford to buy insurance. And we’re going to make, use this occasion to make our case, even though we only have 41 votes.

HH: Now Senator Alexander, the President has obviously decided to try and sell this again to an American people that did not want it passed, and down whose collective throats it has been jammed. Do you think he has a chance to change political opinion on this in any realistic fashion?

LA: Well, he’s very persuasive. And yes, he has a chance. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see his popularity, and the bill’s popularity, go up a little bit. But as people become aware of it, the faces they’re going to be looking at about this bill, are the seniors. I mean, there are 11 million seniors in Medicare Advantage whose benefits are going to be cut. Those faces are going to be the faces we see. There are 19 million students who are going to be overcharged on their student loans to pay for health care. Those are going to be the faces Americans see. At the request of the unions, they lowered the small business exemption for the bill to five for contractors. And so if you’re a contractor with six employees, the health are mandates apply to you. And this is at a time when 27% of the people in the construction business, to which this applies, are unemployed. So as people find out about the Medicare cuts, the premium increases, the tax increases, and the big increases to the national debt, the President’s going to have a tough time changing the public’s mind.

HH: Now your colleague, and a friend of this program, John Cornyn, today is quoted at the Huffington Post as saying Republicans will not run on repeal. And I think I know what he means, that they’re…they managed in a 2,000 page bill to get a couple of pages of good ideas in there, and so we want to keep some stuff. But does that make sense to dilute the message right now, Lamar Alexander?

LA: Well, repeal and replace. I mean, our message really isn’t any different. We want health care reform. Health care reform means to us sensible legislation that reduces the cost of our policy, not legislation that increases the cost of your government and your policy. So what Senator Cornyn is saying, sure, we’re going to support the repeal movement, but our major effort is going to be to say if you’ll vote for us, we not only will try to repeal and change the taxes, the mandates, all that, we’ve got a plan to help lower the cost of your health insurance, which means you can buy insurance across state lines. We’re going to do our best to reduce the number of junk lawsuits against doctors. We’re going to let small businesses combine their resources. We’re going to do our best to get rid of fraud and abuse. We’re going to focus on costs. That’s what he’s saying. Replace…we’re going to repeal what they’ve done, and replace it with sensible, thoughtful legislation to reduce your health care costs.

HH: And I want to talk about the balance of 2010. If I had a magic wand, I’d make you all go away until we could have a vote on this thing, and a chance to say whether or not the country’s gone too far to the left. But obviously, there are appropriation bills, et cetera. But your colleague, and again, a frequent guest on this program, Lindsey Graham, is evidently engaged in negotiations on immigration, and in negotiations on cap and tax. And Senator Alexander, I just don’t think there’s any stomach for anything. What’s your sense in the Senate right now?

LA: Well, we haven’t seen Lindsey’s plan on cap and tax. My view on that is any step away from an economy-wide cap and trade is a good step. And most all Republican Senators agree with that, and many Democrats do. On immigration, of course we have a responsibility to deal with immigration, but the question is to do what. I mean, if the question is do we have a secure card for everybody who works here, so we can tell they’re legally here, that’s a good idea. If we get control of the border, that’s a good idea. If we help people learn English, that’s a good idea. If we let highly educated people from other countries get a green card so they can stay and create jobs for us, that’s a good idea. All of those are parts of immigration reform that we have a responsibility to deal with. So I doubt we’ll get into that very far this year, or economy-wide cap and trade. I think the issue’s going to be, the President actually said last year, that health care is just a proxy for a larger debate about the role of government and Washington in the lives of Americans. He’s exactly right about that, and that’s what we’ll be debating, and that’s what the election will be about.

HH: Last question, Senator Alexander, Senator Dodd is doing a jam down on the banking regulation rewrite. Are the Republicans going to stand firm, 41 united, against this?

LA: Well, against the bill as it’s presented. We were working hard to try to work across party lines and come up with a sensible bill. But Senator Shelby and Senator Corker did the best they could, and can’t do it. We want legislation that does not expand the role of government. And we want legislation that does not allow big institutions to be too big to fail. So what we’ve mainly got now are amendments to Senator Dodd’s bill, not any ability to work with him.

HH: Senator Lamar Alexander, I appreciate very much your taking the time. Back to the good fight with you, and I look forward to checking in with you next week after the smoke has cleared.

End of interview.

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