HH: Joined now by United States Senator John Thune, third-ranking Republican in the Senate. Senator Thune, always great to talk to you, welcome, good to have you.
JT: Thanks. Great to be with you, Hugh.
HH: A lot of ground to cover. Let’s begin with the obvious. I believe that Judge Gorsuch is a lock for confirmation. Do you?
JT: Agreed. Yeah.
HH: Will they have 60? Will you have to deploy the Reid Rule? Or will you get 60 votes for him?
JT: Hard to say. I think the Democrats are going to dig in and fight on this, because their base won’t let them not fight. I think that’s, my guess is that they’ll let a handful go that they really, that are in tough races in ’18. And they’ll give us 58, maybe 59, but not 60, and that’s just a guess. But you know, I’m still hopeful and optimistic that they’ll come to their senses. This is a judge that will be very, very hard for them to attack. And I think the American people see that. And the more they see of him, the more impressed they are by him, and I think that makes the Democrats’ case tougher. But you’ve got to remember, the outside groups that are the center of gravity right now in the Democrat caucus is on the far left.
HH: And so if it does come to that, do you believe the Republicans will support the Reid Rule’s application to the Supreme Court nominees?
JT: Well, I, we will confirm Judge Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
HH: All right, that’s all I needed to hear, and I hope they make you do it, because then there won’t be any question about its applicability, the precedent’s applicability. Second set of questions before we come to health care, there is the Russia issue. Dan Henninger has a column in the Wall Street Journal today which is must reading for everyone. First of all, why doesn’t, in your opinion, the President call Director Comey and simply ask him if there’s anyone in the White House under investigation so that that individual can be separated from the White House if in fact there is an investigation actively involving a White House staffer?
JT: That would be a good question to ask. Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I think that the point that Henninger makes in his column about this, just this massive leaking like a sieve has got to be tightened up, and the President and his team have to do that. And that seems like that could be handled fairly quickly, fairly easily, but it needs to get done, because these leaks are…
HH: But step number one…
JT: These leaks are incredibly damaging.
HH: And step number one, though, is to make sure you haven’t got someone who is involved in a criminal investigation on the White House staff.
HH: I mean, that’s a cancer at the White House, to quote the, what Joseph Alsop called John Dean, a bottom-dwelling slug. But he did say there is a cancer in the White House. If there is one, you’ve got to know about it, right?
JT: Correct, absolutely. Yup.
HH: All right. I hope the President does that. Now are you concerned that lawfully collected intelligence was abused, as Henninger points out, the March 1 New York Times. It’s a separate inquiry from what I just asked, but are you, John Thune, concerned that perhaps Obama administration officials repurposed and misused legitimately collected intelligence?
JT: I think that the wider that’s distributed, and you know, when NSA and all these other folks have access to stuff, it’s inevitable that these things are going to leak. And so whether that was willful or not, I mean, I’m not, I guess, prepared to answer that question. But I do think that it’s pretty clear that this just incessant leaking that is occurring is incredibly damaging to us, and that’s why I think as I said, that the administration has got to tighten this up. And the information that is important to America’s national security interests needs to be maintained as such. And the more people that have access to that stuff, the more likely you’re going to have leaks.
HH: I do not believe Devin Nunes acted inappropriately yesterday, but many people do. What do you think, Senator Thune?
JT: Well, I always prefer that members of the Intelligence Committee and the leaders of the Intelligence Committees say as little in public as possible. I mean, that’s why they’re, that’s why those committees are so important, and the information that they’re handling is so important. And things that they say are, have outsized influence, I think, in terms of our public debates. But if in fact the information that he was pointing out yesterday is available out there, that certainly needs to be a part of the broader investigation that his committee is undertaking. But I do think less is better until they have the findings, they complete it, and they’ve got a report and all that. My preference would be that, on both sides, that the Intelligence Committees go about their work and do it the way that I think most of us want to see it done, and that’s with great diligence, and it’s delicate stuff with a good amount of restraint when it comes to speaking publicly.
HH: Has the GOP Conference discussed a select committee on the Russia inquiry?
JT: No, and I think we have full confidence that the appropriate committees that have the jurisdiction over these issues will look into it. The Intelligence Committee, of course, is the key one there. And I think that’ll be done, and done in a right way, so…
HH: Perfect. Let’s go to health care. I think you’re going to get a bill sent to you today, and if not today, tomorrow, because of the informal ruling of the Senate Parliamentarian, conveyed by Mike Lee, to the Freedom Caucus and discussed with the President last night that an essential benefits amendment would not derail the bill from consideration of reconciliation. Do you agree with that, and with the predicate that I attached to it?
JT: Well, one, I hope that you’re right, that it does pass the House. I know they’re whipping hard, and the President is engaged in that. I think it’s really important that they get this through. And if they do attach essential benefits package to the House bill and it comes over to the Senate, I think there are serious questions that will be raised about whether or not it can withstand a point of order challenge, a Byrd Rule challenge in the Senate under reconciliation. But I think we should, we should push as hard as we can, as far as we can go, get as much as we can through reconciliation at 51, because the Democrats are not going to give us any help on other features of this bill. And the essential benefits package is a huge driver of cost. I mean, that has to be addressed. And so we’re looking at ways, obviously, of addressing that both within the legislative process and outside of it through administrative action that can be taken by Secretary Price.
HH: But at least give it a shot with the Parliamentarian to see if it can make it on 51 votes.
JT: I think yeah, you’ve got to, these things all have to be taken into totality, because as you start, if one thing gets stripped out and becomes corrosive to the bill, you have to be very careful about not having things in there that would affect the privilege status of the bill. So we have to be real circumspect in how we approach this going into it, and have vetted a lot of this with the Parliamentarian. But I do think that given that sort of caveat, we should push as hard and as far as we can to get as much, you know, change and reform in this bill as we possibly can.
HH: Senator Thune, I have suggested in the Washington Post and elsewhere using the tax code to dis-incentive certain behaviors we do not like, for example, adding a tax surcharge on state policies, or policies from states that do not cap pain and suffering damages. Will there be any innovation to try and get into reconciliation policy goals which do in fact impact tax and spending and the budget?
JT: If it can be demonstrated that it is a, has a clear impact on revenues and spending that is not, you know, incidental, in other words, that the policy objective isn’t the principle objective in that, then yes. I mean, it can withstand, I think, the scrutiny that would come under a Byrd Rule challenge in the Senate. But it has to be, it really does have to be the, you know, revenues and expenses have to be the reason. And so it’s, that’s a very fine line. All these things, you know, these questions we’re asking, because you’re right. We want to get at the drivers of health care costs, and in this bill, as much policy as we can get that would move us in a direction of driving costs down for people in this country. And clearly, that’s one issue that we should test.
HH: I really do believe you’d raise a lot of money with a federal tax surcharge on policies from states that do not cap pain and suffering and other measures to reform the abuse of malpractice. Now let me turn to the liberals in the Republican Caucus. They’re not really liberals. They’re center-right people, and I’m often in sympathy with many of them. They are concerned about transition costs for Medicaid. It seems to me that the Republicans ought to spend the money necessary to bring them on board for the transition period, because the entitlement reform that is in front of us is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Do you believe the leadership shares that perspective that a reasonable request for additional funds to ease transition costs will be met?
JT: I do, and I think that I agree with you entirely that a little, you know, in order to get this thing across the finish line, if there’s things that we need to do short term that yield long term benefits, in other words, entitlement reforms that are decades long and generational in scope, we need to be looking at that, because this really is a unique, historic opportunity to do something that we haven’t been able to do around here literally in decades, and that is get some of these entitlement programs on a more sustainable path. So that’s a huge piece of this, of course, for some of our members, and we’re looking at ways of, you know, working with the bill as it comes over here to the Senate to address those concerns. But the truth is in order to pass this, we’ll probably have to fix some things that are currently in the House bill. But if we can get those, keep that eye on the prize and the eye on the ball here, which is the entitlement reforms that come with this, that would be enormous. It would be so consequential for the country.
HH: And the repeal of the taxes and the repeal of the individual mandate. So at this point, are you an optimist that by Easter, the President is going to have a bill on his desk?
JT: You know, I think that if it emerges from the House today, I hope so. Yes. I mean, it’s, the Senate is scheduled to take it up next week. We’re still waiting for scoring issues from CBO on some of the proposals that members have that we want to perhaps incorporate into it. But the goal is yes, to transact this moving across the Senate floor before the Easter break, and hopefully have something through both the House and the Senate that the President can sign. And that would be historic, and coupled with some of the things the administration can do, you know, hopefully, finally get a grip on out of control health care costs in this country, and creating more of a free market, a competitive marketplace.
HH: Will Judge Gorsuch be confirmed before the Easter recess?
JT: Yes, that is, yeah, that is something I’m quite certain will be done.
HH: Okay, so that brings me to the third part of the puzzle, which is we don’t have enough people at the agencies, especially Defense and State. Have you talked to Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson about nominating, especially some Republicans at Defense. I’m just shocked that we don’t have, we’ve got a lot of national security expertise in the Republican Party, and General Mattis just does not seem to want them.
JT: Yeah, and I think you know, I never know for sure, Hugh, whether that’s, you know, the White House or the departments themselves, or what those interactions are in terms of whether they’re sending folks forward and how, you know, when the White House is then getting them up here. But we need to get those key positions filled, and there are some terrific people out there, as you mentioned. I mean, we have a lot of talent when it comes to national security expertise in our party. And we need to get it deployed in these, I think these cabinet secretaries need to have a team with them supporting them, and that they can help get their objectives achieved.
HH: If the President nominates a significant number of people for the key agencies – EPA and Interior at home for domestic energy production and domestic productivity, and at Defense and State, and you go to recess, do you support his use of the recess appointment authority in order to get his teams in place?
JT: You know, I think that if they have done everything they can and followed regular order, and you know, exhausted some of the potential opportunities to get these positions filled, and due to the, you know, recalcitrance the Democrats, were not able to do that, I mean, I think you have to, you’ve got to have your team in place, and the Democrats have made it extremely difficult. They’re still in denial about the election. They know they can’t stop a lot of these people, but they’re doing everything they can to drag it on and delay it. And that’s incredibly problematic. You know, he has to have a team to govern. So you know, I’m not, I would prefer that not have to be the case. And if they can get names up here, we will in due order and due course process them as quickly as we can and get them through the Senate. That’s clearly the preferred route.
HH: But if he does use the recess appointment, you’re not going to be screaming?
JT: No, I mean, I think he’s got to have his team. And you know, he has to have his people in place, one way or the other.
HH: John Thune from the great state of South Dakota, thank you, Senator. Good luck this week and next. You’re going to be busy, and I hope it’ll be an Easter miracle, and all this will come together by indeed Easter. Thank you, Senator Thune.
End of interview.