Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist
HH: Welcome back, Majority Leader of the United States Senate, Bill Frist. Good to have you, Senator.
BF: Hey, Hugh, great to be with you.
HH: Senator, there was a business meeting of the Judiciary Committee today. Did you get any nominees to the floor?
BF: I don’t know what the outcome of that was. We’re dealing with other executive nominees today on the floor of the Senate, but I don’t know if they marked out any of the judges today. I hope so, and if so, we’re going to start taking them to the floor.
HH: Is it your expectation that you will get some more appellate nominees confirmed before the end of this session, Senator Frist?
BF: Hugh, I believe we will, and my only hesitation, I don’t know if they’ve come out of Judiciary Committee today. And then, next Friday, is our last day, at least before the elections. We will be back in a lame duck session, and during that period of time, we’ll have another opportunity as well.
HH: And of those, do you have a priority attached to any of the names? Is Peter Keisler…
BF: Not yet, and what I will do is hopefully, there’ll be one or two or three come out. And whoever they are, I will try to take to the floor as soon as I possibly can. We have the circuit court right here in D.C., as you know, which is a very high priority for us.
HH: Now let’s turn to the two major pieces of legislation that confront you in your last eight days here, Majority Leader Frist, of this session. That’s the tribunals bill and the NSA legislation. Status on either of those, Senator?
BF: Yes, the military tribunals bill is the one that we’re spending a lot of time on right now. This whole detainment questioning and prosecution of terrorists captured on the battlefield is absolutely essential to winning the War On Terror. I was down in Guantanamo Bay last weekend, and although we’ve got Khalid Sheikh Mohammed down there right now, we cannot actually prosecute, because we have no military tribunal there. Any bill we pass in the Senate’s got to achieve two goals. First of all, preserve our intelligence programs, because we know they save lives. The President has said it. And secondly, protect classified information from these terrorists. As you know, we have a bill, the Warner-McCain-Graham bill, which does not accomplish those two goals. It does not have sixty votes on the floor of the Senate now, and it takes sixty votes to pass anything. Thus, there are alternatives that are being discussed, and hopefully we can come to some sort of agreement which meets those two goals of preserving very important intelligence programs, and protecting classified information from terrorists.
HH: Is my assessment, Senator Frist, that Senator McCain and Graham have come under heavy political fire from people who believe the commander-in-chief ought not to be so hindered by legislative niceties that involve second-guessing their lawyers at Justice, etc. Have you felt that the vast number of Americans communicating with you want the President’s bill?
BF: Yes. Well, I’m very much in favor of the President’s bill. It clarifies U.S. law, it means the program can continue, and it means that classified information that could be used against us is not going to be used against us, because it’s not going to be provided. So to me, it’s clear, and to most of the people who are contacting me, it’s clear. I don’t want to diminish what Warner, McCain and Graham are doing, except it does not meet the bottom line of allowing a program that has been lifesaving to Americans to continue. And therefore, I certainly don’t support that, and I don’t think most of the American people support that, because of that very reason.
HH: The White House sent up a new bill today. Have you had a chance to look at that yet, Majority Leader Frist?
BF: No, and you know, first of all, the Warner-McCain-Graham effort, and where most of the rest of Republicans are, and that’s two different places, I think there is a common goal shared, and that is to be able to continue the program, and also protect classified information. It’s just most people coming forward say that the McCain bill does not do that. I don’t know how it’s going to play out. I’ve not seen the information, the alternatives that are being proposed. My understanding is that the White House has proposed something to those three, those three rejected it, and they’re going to be sharing some other language. So we will continue to work hard, but I’m not going to take a bill to the floor right now that does not satisfy the two criteria that I laid out, intelligence programs, classified information.
HH: Do you think there will be a new law by the election?
BF: Yes. Hugh, we’ve got to. I…as I said, being in the surroundings on that island, with Cuba, and knowing within fifty or a hundred yards, I have 14 terrorists who have slaughtered Americans, our soldiers, who are the mastermind behind 9/11 and the tragedy there. For us not to be able to have a trial for them, for us not to be able to have a program, and the program is on hold now, to continue interrogation to get information that might be lifesaving, to me, is inexcusable. And that’s why the President has called for us to act now. That’s why I’m supporting the President as aggressively as I am, and that’s why I’m very hopeful that Warner, McCain and Graham will accept the goals of having appropriate use of classified information, and allowing the program to continue, to be their goals as well.
HH: But it’s your understanding that they’ve rejected round 2 from the White House?
BF: Yes, and that’s my understanding, is that it was unacceptable. I think they made an announcement to that, in fact, this morning.
HH: Now Majority Leader Frist, I interviewed Senator Graham at length on Friday. I don’t understand what his objection is. It shifts, it changes. It’s not persuasive. It certainly doesn’t read the Supreme Court opinion, at least the Kennedy concurrence in context and track. Do you understand his objection?
BF: Well, in the way I understand it, is on the common Article 3, which is where the real focus is, put the classified information aside, that the President, very specifically, wants to clarify, to divine in U.S. law, what common Article 3 means. And the reason that that is so important is because the common Article 3 says, and I quote, “Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment…” Well, does that mean….those are the exact words. Does that mean playing Red Hot Chili Peppers, or whatever was played the other day, or not? We need to define that. And what the Warner approach has been, and supported with McCain and Lindsey is to keep that ambiguous. And if it’s ambiguous, we’re not going to get anybody to subject themselves to interrogate these terrorists, if they’re going to be judged by international standards that are as vague as outrages upon personal dignity.
HH: Well, I’ll tell you, I don’t understand it, and it sounds like most of the Republicans don’t, and I don’t think the voters in the country do, but good luck on that. Now the NSA bill. That did get out of Judiciary Committee. Is that coming to the floor soon?
BF: The NSA bill, again, that’s the surveillance bill to give our government the tools we need to be able to pick up information to prevent terrorist attacks. A very important bill. Arlen Specter has been working very closely with the administration. That bill has joint jurisdiction with our Intelligence Committee, and so, the Intelligence Committee has to address it first, before I take it to the floor. It has passed out of the Judiciary Committee. It is now in the Intelligence Committee. And once they pass it, we can take that to the floor.
HH: And do you expect that will happen shortly?
BF: I don’t know. The Intelligence Committee can hopefully look at it later this week, but again, the other side of the aisle could obstruct it in the Intelligence Committee, and so I don’t know what the outcome will be there. But again, it’s a bill that I strongly support, and we’ll look forward to taking it to the floor, because it clarifies what tools we can use to obtain this information.
HH: Senator Frist, I know we’ve got elections coming up. But given the importance of judges and to tribunals, and the NSA surveillance program, shouldn’t you keep the Senate there as long as it takes?
BF: It gets increasingly hard, Hugh, and I think it’s pretty apparent to people. When you have the other side of the aisle literally obstructing, and although…and you know and understand that although the House is run by primacy of the offense, because it’s a majority rule, the United States Senate is primacy of the defense, and that’s the way it was set up, and those are the rules that there, which means that if the Democrats want to obstruct, they’re going to obstruct. And with that, as we get closer to these elections, I’m seeing more and more obstruction. And people are going to say well, you know, you can fight it. And you can fight it, but you can’t pass it if they continue to obstruct. Thus, these elections become even all the more important, because that contrast between Republicans who want to move America’s agenda forward towards greater prosperity, greater homeland security and American values, versus the Democrats who want to obstruct, it becomes clearer and clearer. And at the ballot box, that decision can be made, and great changes can be accomplished.
HH: Last question, Senator Frist. Doesn’t that contrast become clearer if you keep the Senate there and make them obstruct every day in front of the American people, even if it’s in the election season?
BF: It may…the problem is that I’ve got 34 races right now, and I think it’s important that these candidates be able to get home, be able to show the contrast to their people back at home, because not everybody pays much attention to what’s going on in the United States Senate, to be honest. You do and I do, but your typical person out there is not sitting here following what goes on the floor of the Senate, and so they need to see those nominees, those Senators at home making the case, showing the sharp differences.
HH: Well, thank you, Senator Frist, and I leave you with this. I hope you keep them there, because I think you might have got that one wrong when it comes to the people, but I appreciate your taking the time. Good luck next week.
BF: Okay, Hugh. Thank you. Appreciate it.
End of interview.