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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

Thursday, January 4, 2007

HH: Joined now by Senator Mitch McConnell of the great state of Kentucky, the minority leader of the United States Senate, representing the Republicans there. Senator McConnell, welcome, good to have you.

MM: Glad to be with you.

HH: Today in your opening address, you invoked the spirit of Henry Clay, also of your state, as well as others like Mike Mansfield, Everett Dirksen, and George Mitchell. Do you really think there’s the opportunity for the great compromiser spirit to be rekindled in the upper chamber?

MM: Well, we’ll see. I think it’s important to remember that civility does not mean capitulation, and I pointed out in my speech that while there were some areas upon which we really should be able to achieve bipartisan agreement, for example, we need to pass a lobbying reform bill. We should have done it, frankly, last year. There are other things I don’t think are subject to compromise. We’re not going to support raising taxes, we’re not going to support policies that will take us off of offense in the War On Terror. There’s no question that being on offense in Afghanistan and Iraq has protected us here at home for five years, and prevented a single additional attack after 9/11. And finally, and many would argue most importantly, we’re going to insist that President Bush get the same kind of treatment in the last two years of his term that each of the last three presidents in the last two years of their terms, have gotten from a United States Senate controlled by the opposition party, and that is roughly the same number of circuit judges confirmed as Clinton got, as Bush 41 got, and as Reagan got.

HH: And how many would that be, Senator?

MM: Somewhere between 12 and 20.

HH: Okay, and of course, any Supreme Court nomination that might occur.

MM: Of course. All of these judges are entitled to an up or down vote. They were given that courtesy by Senates composed of a majority of the opposition under Reagan, Bush 41 and Clinton, and we expect the same treatment toward President Bush.

HH: Now Senator McConnell, I’d like to go into the tall grass, a little bit, about Senate rules. Very closely divided Senate, and as Senator Johnson recovers, I’m glad to see, and I know every member of the Senate is, he’ll be out for a while. So it’s a very closely divided Senate. Are the rules of operation that you’ve agreed to, do they anticipate changing committees if somehow the balance of power in the Senate were to shift, as it did with Senator Jeffords switched aisles?

MM: Hugh, that doesn’t really need to be addressed. A majority at any point could not…let’s put it this way. If either party became a minority at any point, they couldn’t sustain with the public insisting on majority status. We wish Senator Johnson well, we believe he’s going to be okay, and we anticipate his return to the Senate. But we had a change in 2001, for example, when Senator Jeffords went over to the other side. We didn’t insist on continuing to be the majority when we didn’t have the majority. So we don’t need any specific language to ensure that the majority has the right to organize the majority. The public simply wouldn’t stand for any other result.

HH: Had…In 2001, when Senator Jeffords did switch, hadn’t that already been anticipated and written into the rules, though, Senator McConnell?

MM: No, I think what had happened, in effect, was everybody understood that it shifted, and we…you know, whether it was in there or not in there, it wouldn’t make any difference, Hugh.

HH: Okay.

MM: You can’t carry it off with the public, pretending you’re a majority when you’re not.

HH: Now let’s talk a little bit about Ambassador Khalilzad, who’s been nominated to be the head of the United Nations for us, coming from Iraq. Ambassador Bolton received such a rough deal from the Senate. Do you expect Ambassador Khalilzad to get to the U.N. quickly?

MM: No, I don’t. I think he will be confirmed easily. It’s a shame that John Bolton was treated the way he was. He did a wonderful job at the U.N. I wish he were still there, but I think frankly, he just got tired of the hassle, and decided to move on to something else. but Khalilzad is very popular on both sides of the aisle. I would expect he’d be confirmed rather easily.

HH: Now today, Congressman Murtha, chairman of approps in the House, said the only way to stop a surge, or any change in policy, is through the appropriations process, and he announced he was going to do it. I think that harkens back to Iran-Contra days, which you recall well, when foreign policy was managed through riders. Do you think the Republicans in the Senate will stand for any such thing?

MM: No, I don’t think so. I’m not sure the Democrats will vote for that. What he’s basically talking about is cutting off money for the troops, which is really about the only way Congress can try to micro-manage a war. I don’t think a majority of the Democrats are even going to vote for that. I think that’s going to be a tough sell for Congressman Murtha. I don’t think that will prevail. But what I think you’ll have is a lot of speeches, and a lot of hearing, and a lot of other things criticizing whatever the President does, whether he decides to increase the number of troops or not. But when it comes right down to Congress trying to micro-manage the war, they can’t do it. There’s no way to do it. The only tool available is to cut off money for troops in the field, and I think that’s not a sustainable position for the Democrats, and I don’t think a majority of the Democrats will go along with that.

HH: I’m talking with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, minority leader in the United States Senate. Senator, earlier today, ABC reported that Admiral William Fallon, and General David Patreus will be replacing General Abizaid and General Casey at Centcom and Iraq command, respectively. Do you expect both the admiral and the general to have a quick passage through the Senate?

MM: I would think so. I actually know General Patreus. He headed the 101st Airborne, which is headquartered in Kentucky at Fort Campbell, and had a chance to meet with him while I was on one of my trips to Iraq. He’s an outstanding general. I don’t know the other general, but I can’t imagine that the Congress would try to micro-manage the selection of generals. It’s never done that in the past, and I don’t think it would do it now.

HH: Now Counsel to the President Harriet Miers resigned today. She got a rough deal a couple of years ago. What’s the President need in a counsel to the President, Senator McConnell?

MM: It’s a tough job. I mean, the principal responsibility that a White House Counsel’s office has that impacts us here in the Senate is the background checks and working up these judicial nominations, Hugh, which you and I were just discussing a few minutes ago. So I think handling those nominations correctly, that is picking the right people, getting them vetted and getting them up here in a timely fashion is extremely important, and I think the White House Counsel’s job is a big job, an important job, and I hope the President will fill it quickly.

HH: Two more questions. Kent Conrad announced that there’s got to be some tax hikes on the wealthiest families. What’s that mean? What do the Democrats consider to be wealthy, Senator McConnell?

MM: Anybody that’s got a job.

HH: (laughing)

MM: You know? I always try to define it for them, because they never want to. The truth of the matter is that high income people in America are paying a greater percentage of the taxes that are coming into the federal government today than they did before the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. So high income people in America are paying the freight. We do not need to raise taxes. That’s the last thing we want to do, and that’s one of the three things that I mentioned today that are a matter of principal among the Republican near-majority in the Senate. I think raising taxes is a bad idea. I mean, look at what’s happened over the last three years. We created seven million jobs, our economy is the envy of the world, in fact, those seven million jobs are more jobs that have been created in the same period by Japan and the European Union combined. We’ve got a 4.5% unemployment, which is virtually full employment in America.

HH: Yeah, we don’t want to mess with that. I’ve got to get the last question in. Any regrets on your part for the womping that Louisville gave to Wake Forest, Senator?

MM: No regrets at all. I was there. I’m a Louisville Cardinal fan, big time.

HH: (laughing) Well, congratulations on that, and on a great start to the Senate, and good luck in keeping them focused on tax relief, economic growth, and the threat abroad, and of course, judges.

End of interview.

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