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Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell On Defense Approps And Judicial Nominees The Rest Of Obama’s Term

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The Transcript:

HH: So pleased to welcome back the Majority Leader of the United States Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Senator McConnell, welcome, it’s great to have you on, Mr. Leader.

MM: Hey, Hugh, glad to be with you.

HH: Now let’s begin by talking about the sunset of the Patriot Act and the passage of the USA Freedom Act. I was disappointed. I thought you had the high ground. I wanted the straight reauthorization. Is the country less safe today than it was a week ago?

MM: Yeah, I think so. There were pretty broad differences of opinion. My view was that there’d been a lot of misrepresentation, and certainly misunderstanding about what the Patriot Act did with regard to what’s called bulk data collection. And I always started the debate by saying look, nobody’s listening to your phone calls. So nobody’s interested in you calling your mother on Mother’s Day. What did happen under the previous law was the NSA was able to look at the information that does not belong to each of us individually anyway, which is our phone bills, even without names, and look for patterns of calls between Americans and identified foreign terrorists overseas. Only after that was established did they then have an opportunity to go to what’s called the FISA court, which is a special court of federal judges. And they have to convince them that there’s enough evidence here to actually listen in to the calls. So I thought the safeguards were in place. There was not a single example of abuse of the system. But the House passed a modified version of the Patriot Act that in my view essentially ends the bulk data collection program. I think that’s giving up a tool in the toolkit. It’s not giving up every tool we’ve got, but it certainly gave up, I think, an important tool. But look, the majority rules. And I didn’t have the votes for an extension of the Patriot Act, and the President signed the modification, and we move on.

HH: I hope that I’m not right, but I predict we’re going to be revisiting this after a tragedy. You know, yesterday Boston Police shot and killed a long wolfer, Usaama Rahim. Do you, Senator McConnell, have any idea how many people are being surveilled with the intensity the FBI was watching Mr. Rahim? They knew he was a bad guy. They knew he was a jihadi who’d been taken in by ISIS. Do you have any idea of the raw numbers of that category of suspect out there?

MM: I don’t, but look, you know, we know that this kind of terrorism is on the move. We’ve got one terrorist group, ISIL, that actually controls territory, a large swathe of both Syria and Iraq. This is the first time we’ve had a terrorist group that actually had territory. Usually, they’d go to ungovernable places to carry out their heinous acts, or they try to inspire people over here to do it, and we’ve seen examples of that with the Boston Marathon massacre, we saw it with the Fort Hood shooting. We even saw it in Texas here in the last month or so. So this kind of radical activity is going on. It’s very, very difficult to combat, and my view is we needed to give all the tools possible to those trying to protect us, particularly and only if they don’t violate our Constitutional rights to privacy, and I didn’t feel there was anything in the Patriot Act that did that.

HH: I agree with that. Now some of the tools that we need are going to be in the Defense Appropriations Act, and I’m shocked, I’m actually stunned that Harry Reid would announce today they’re not going to bring up Defense Appropriations. What is going on there?

MM: Well, what he doesn’t get to do that. That’s my responsibility. I’m the leader of the majority, and we do the scheduling, and the Defense Authorization bill is on the floor. What he said was it was, “a waste of time,” and the reason he said that is because the President threatened to veto it. I mean, here’s the situation, Hugh. We think spending more on Defense is critical to the defense of the nation. They want to spend more on everything. So what they’re saying in effect here is they’re unwilling to spend what we need on Defense unless we give them more for the IRS and the EPA, in other words, their priorities. And we’re going to test that. We’re going to test that. The Defense bill’s on the floor now. At some point next week, we’ll move toward conclusion. It will take 60 votes to conclude the bill. We’ll see whether they really want to do this. Sometimes, they talk bigger in the locker room than they do out on the court. We’ll see.

HH: If they do not allow a vote, if they block the 60 on this, will you consider breaking the legislative filibuster?

MM: No, we’re not going to do that. But you know, the President, we’re not going to fundamentally try to change the Senate into a simple majoritarian institution. I think we’ve got a good chance of getting enough Democrats who are not willing to walk over the cliff with Harry Reid on this one.

HH: I hope you’re right. I’ll be right back after the break, continue the conversation. My guest is United States Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

— – – – –

HH: As we left, he said he’s unwilling to break the legislative filibuster. If I can pause there for a moment, Mr. Leader, we’re in a war. You’ve got a dysfunctional Democratic Party and a President that is feckless and oblivious in some instances to the threats posed by Iran. Is there any set of circumstances that would lead you to believe a suspension of the legislative filibuster is just necessary to get the country back on course?

MM: Well, it wouldn’t serve any purpose, because it would go to a President who vetoed the bill. So I mean, even if we destroyed the fundamental nature of the Senate, it wouldn’t achieve to the outcome that you and I would like to see, because we have the wrong guy in the White House. So I think suggesting that we fundamentally alter the Senate in a way that honestly, over the years, has saved America from an awful lot of bad idea in order to send a measure a little bit further down the road for the President to veto it doesn’t really serve any purpose.

HH: We may have to have a longer conversation sometime about the clarity and the advantages of that, but let me turn to the King V. Burwell decision and the aftermath of a positive decision. I’m hoping the Supreme Court rules as it should that there is no federal subsidy. What do you see happening in the aftermath of that, Mr. Leader?

MM: Well, we’ll be ready to offer a proposal to protect the American people from this awful law. It’s the worst piece of legislation that’s been passed in at least the half century, the single biggest step in the direction of Europeanizing our country, dumbing down our health care system. In even in left wing Vermont, I’m sure you’re following the catastrophe there…

HH: Yes.

MM: And premiums are shooting up, copayments are higher, deductibles are higher. There are some Americans who have insurance who didn’t used to have it, but it’s not very good insurance, because the copayments and deductibles are so high that hospitals are now seeing a new form of uncompensated care. It’s people who have insurance, but the insurance is so bad, it doesn’t do them any good. So we’ll have a response to it, depending upon what the Court recommends. Whether the President will sign it or not is another matter, but we’ll let the American people know what we think is appropriate in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.

HH: Now I don’t think it’s realistic to expect the President to go along with a repeal of Obamacare, so I am one of those that urge getting as much as is possible and playing some poker, and you’re the guy to be playing poker with him. Is part of that poker package that would get the President’s signature, in your opinion, Mitch McConnell, repeal of the medical device tax?

MM: We certainly think it’s a terrible tax that’s offshored a great number of American jobs to other countries. I don’t think he’s going to sign anything, frankly.

HH: Oh, really?

MM: No, I don’t think he will. What I think he’ll probably do is veto anything we send him, and put the pressure on the states to cave and turn established state exchanges in place of federal exchanges, thereby making them eligible for subsidies. I think he’s going to put the heat on the governors who have, in my view, wisely decided not to go along with this new game plan, either with the Medicaid expansion or with establishing a state exchange.

HH: I’ll talk with Governor Kasich about that, whether or not he’d go that way. Wouldn’t it be best served if all the governors got together and had a package of proposals that they would come and with down with you and the Speaker and the Leader and Paul Ryan and negotiate a unified approach?

MM: Yeah, we certainly care what the governors think. I mean, they’re on the firing line here. I believe Governor Kasich did do a Medicaid expansion. I don’t know whether they chose to set up a state exchange or not, so they may or may not be affected by this.

HH: They don’t have an exchange. They don’t have a state exchange. They did have an expansion. So I think he’s thinking about doing it…

MM: Yeah, well then, they would be affected, yeah. But we’re certainly interested in what they have to say.

HH: Are you going to urge governors not to establish exchanges in order to keep the pressure on the President?

MM: No, I haven’t communicated with the governors. You know, I think many of them made a very wise decision not to encumber their states with the kind of debt that’s coming their way with the Medicaid expansion. And many of them felt they didn’t want to wrestle with these exchanges anyway. And so I don’t, you know, I think it was probably a pretty wise decision. We’re all going to have to look at where we are in the wake of the decision, and we’ll have a plan for the American people if in fact the plaintiff is successful.

HH: Now Senator McConnell, if you go to 30,000 feet with me, I think the Senate’s been working for the first time in six years. And there have been some bumps like the Patriot Act/USA Freedom Act, but that was the only one I can remember. You got the doc fix done, the approp bills are rolling along. What’s your impression about the restoration of regular order? Is it actually happening?

MM: It sure is. I mean, we had 15 roll call vote in all of 2014. We’ve had 120 or so, so far this year. And we didn’t pass a budget four of the last five years. To show you how unusual that is, the law requires it, of course, and only one time from 1974 down to five years ago did we not pass a budget. We’ve don’t that this year. We’ve passed bipartisan bills on requiring the President to submit his deal with the Iranians’ nuclear weapons to Congress, we’ve done a bipartisan trade promotion authority bill. Yeah, we’re up and running, and the Senate is certainly functioning again. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to have great debates, and one of the biggest ones is going to be the issue you and I were discussing earlier, just how much are we going to spend and where are we going to spend it. We think defense of the nation is job one.

HH: And my last question goes to judicial nominations. I am one of those people who wouldn’t confirm another judge given the antics they pulled last year. But what is the situation vis-à-vis federal judicial nominations and the process in the Senate right now?

MM: Well, so far, the only judges we’ve confirmed have been federal district judges that have been signed off on by Republican Senators.

HH: And so you expect that that will continue to be the case for the balance of this session?

MM: I think that’s highly likely, yeah.

HH: Well, that’s very good news from my perspective. Senator McConnell, thanks for joining us, and good luck and continue the regular order rebirth, and we’ll talk about that filibuster break some other time.

MM: Okay.

HH: Thank you, Senator.

MM: Okay, all right, thanks a lot.

End of interview.


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