Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell on the Democrats caving on border security, and vowing to fight continued blockage of judicial nominees.
HH: Pleased now to welcome back to the program the Republican leader in the United States Senate, Mitch McConnell. Senator McConnell, good to have you.
MM: Good to be with you again.
HH: Can you recap for us, Senator McConnell, what happened on this homeland security bill? Yesterday, the Democrats said it wasn’t germane to vote border security funds, and today they collapsed and decided it was. What’s going on there?
MM: Well, they changed their minds in the face of an overwhelmingly popular move that Senator Lindsey Graham led to fund border security. Basically, the argument that Senator Graham made that appealed to all Republicans initially, and subsequently, virtually every Democrat, was that if we were willing to declare an emergency to spend $100 billion dollars in Iraq, which we were, this is an important emergency. And so we basically waived the budget, and appropriated $3 billion dollars, which is roughly the amount of money that was in the defeated immigration bill, to actually fund a number of our border security commitments. So the Democrats, you know, caved, folded, because they know that this is the, in the immigration field, this is the issue the American people care about the most.
HH: Now Senator McConnell, I know you tried to play honest broker among many different competing factions during the immigration debate, but does not this result suggest that those who thought we ought to go border security first were right, because we’re going to get border security without the parts of the bill that people didn’t like?
MM: Well, I think it was certainly the most…it was the best provision of the late lamented bill that had a number of things in it that in the end even caused me to vote against it, because I was hoping that we could get it cleaned up during the legislative process. That of course did not ultimately happen. But this, there were a couple of other good features in it, but this was the best, this was the most important thing, and this is indeed the place to start.
HH: Now do you expect this will get through the House in pretty near the same form?
MM: Well, I sure hope so. I mean, you know, they’re going to have to accept the blame if they want to take it out. We’ll go to conference with the House, this provision is not in the House bill, but I think it’ll be under intense scrutiny, and by everybody on the outside, and any Democratic majority conferees deciding to shelve this measure, it strikes me, are going to pay a heavy price with the public.
HH: Now Senator Mitch McConnell, the effort to put a defeat, date certain, out there, you blocked it, and congratulations on that, do you expect it to come back? Are they going to try again?
MM: Yeah, I think so. In September, there’ll be an opportunity that I’m sure they’ll pursue to once again declare the war in Iraq lost, and to try to pass a specific timetable for withdrawal. I don’t think many of the Democrats are interested in what’s in the Petraeus report in September. I think most of my members do care what the facts are, are interested to hear what the General has to say in September, and I think the President is also interested in what the facts on the ground are, and believes that that ought to be the basis upon which me make policy, post September.
HH: What is that additional opportunity? When the Defense Appropriations bill comes back from conference?
MM: Well, there’ll be at least two opportunities, one is that we didn’t finish the Defense Authorization bill, because Reid took it down when we were about two days away from finishing it. So that’ll have to still be passed, I assume. We haven’t failed to pass one in 45 years. And then there’s the additional defense appropriations bill that actually spends the money, and that’s one of the thirteen appropriations bills that are supposed to be done before September 30th. We not done a single one in the Senate yet, further evidence of how dysfunctional this new majority has been.
HH: Is the homeland security appropriations bill that was voted on, the Graham amendment, the first appropriations bill to get through?
MM: Yeah, it’s the first one we’ve even called up in the Senate.
MM: We have one more week here before the August recess, and then one month in September, and the fiscal year ends September 30th. I assume that we will finally finish the first appropriation bill that Senator Reid has turned to later tonight or tomorrow, the homeland security appropriation bill, which is the bill upon which the Lindsey Graham amendment we started out discussing was added.
HH: Against that backdrop, I find Senator Schumer’s time taken today to call for an independent counsel for Alberto Gonzales to be sort of silly.
MM: (laughing) Yeah, well, you know, Schumer, it’s bash Bush every day on whatever issue it may be. And look, the Attorney General may not have wide and deep support even on the Republican side, but he has a constituency of one, it’s the president of the United States. He works for him. He’s already been confirmed by the Senate, and I really think that this constant pile on is not helpful to the Department, its morale or its mission.
HH: It’s also extra-Constitutional to call for an independent counsel when the Congress allowed the independent counsel statute to lapse. Is there any…
MM: Yeah, what he’s talking about is a special counsel which can be done, but the Justice Department would decide to do that. We don’t have a statute anymore. We, on a bipartisan basis, let the independent counsel statute expire in 1999.
MM: And it should have. Even Ken Starr, the most famous or infamous, I guess, depending on which side of the fence you’re on, independent counsel did not like the independent counsel statute, and agreed with me and others that we ought to not renew it, and we didn’t. But the Justice Department does have the ability to appoint a special counsel…
HH: Sure, like Patrick Fitzgerald.
MM: Yeah, that’s how Fitzgerald got picked, yeah.
HH: Do you think it would be advisable for the Attorney General to do this, or the deputy Attorney General to do this?
MM: No, not unless there’s some rationale for it. And this is all just a political witch hunt. I don’t think there’s any defense here for which such a counsel should be appointed. But it would be up to the administration to decide that, not the Congress. We can give them our unsolicited advice if we choose to, but it’ll be handled within the executive branch.
HH: And about the judges, Senator McConnell, are we expecting any progress there?
MM: Well, I’m disappointed in where we are. I think what’s apparently going to happen to Judge Southwick, in the third try to get the 5th Circuit seat from Mississippi filled, by the way, that’s been vacant throughout the whole Bush term. First, Charles Pickering was shot down unfairly, then there was another nominee shot down unfairly. This is the third try to fill that vacancy from Mississippi in the 5th Circuit. And the signs don’t look good, Hugh. I think that they’re planning on trying to nail this guy, and we’re going to fight back. Senator Specter’s been very good on this issue. And we’re going to fight for him.
HH: I appreciate that. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, always a pleasure. Have a great weekend, Senator, we’ll talk to you again soon.
End of interview.