Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander on the non-stimulus bill
HH: We go up the Congressional Hill to the United States Senate and are joined by Senator Lamar Alexander of the great state of Tennessee. Senator Alexander, welcome to the program, good to talk to you.
LA: Thanks very much.
HH: Let’s start with the news out of Minnesota. Your friend, Norm Coleman, scored a big courtroom victory today with the order that probably 4,800 more ballots be counted up there. I guess you folks have to be pretty pleased with that.
LA: Well, I was pleased with that. I have been so busy on the stimulus package today I hadn’t really caught up with it. But we believe Norm will win that election when it’s finally said and done. And he deserves great credit for sticking to his guns.
HH: Now Senator, let’s turn to the stimulus package. That’s what I really wanted to talk to you about. Obviously the EU is threatening today if that becomes law there’s going to be retaliation. It’s Smoot-Hawley all over again. And the Republicans came forward with an alternative today. What’s in the alternative? What are the chances of getting this stimulus knocked into decent shape?
LA: Well, you’re talking first about the Buy American provision?
LA: Well, the Buy American provision is bad policy for our country. And Senator McCain and I have talked about an amendment to try to knock that out. Under the Bush administration, we had a steel tariff. And what the effect of the tariff on imported steel did, it sounded good, but what it did was it increased the cost of all the auto suppliers in the country. And when their costs go up, their jobs go overseas, because they can’t compete. And this is the same idea. And if we build up a wall around our country, and say buy American, then nobody else will buy American, and we’ll be right back where we were in the 1930s. So it sounds good, but it’s short-sided, and we need to try to change it
HH: On the general stimulus, how’s that going?
LA: Well, the general stimulus is, what Republicans are trying to do is to reorient the stimulus package toward stimulus. Right now, it’s $900 billion dollars, with another $300 billion in interest, that’s $1.2 trillion, such a huge number it’s just hard to grasp. And my staff’s estimate is only about $135 billion of that goes toward creating jobs now. So what we want to do is number one, fix housing first. We think that’s the problem, and that got us into it, that can help get us out. Second, let Americans keep more of their own money. That means lower taxes. And three, get out of the bill all of this borrowing money, using money we don’t have, to spend on programs that we don’t really need.
HH: Now on the housing part of that, Senator Alexander, the chairman of the National Association of Home Builders was on the last week, and said they want a $20,000 tax credit for most parts of the country, a little lower in some places, a little higher in other places. What’s the approach that the Republicans are going to put on the floor as an alternative to help housing?
LA: Well, we have two, and we’re going to introduce them tomorrow. Actually, we have more than two. But the two that I am working with Senator Ensign on of Nevada are one, a Treasury-backed 4% mortgage for the next two years for creditworthy Americans. We estimate that 40 million Americans could finance or refinance a home with that. That would help normalize the market, it would be instant jobs, it would be a savings to each homeowner of about $400 dollars a month in reduced borrowing costs. It would help restart housing and get the economy moving. Second, along the lines you just suggested, we’re supporting an amendment by Senator Isakson of Georgia that would be for one year, a $15,000 tax credit for homebuyers. This is much less expensive, both of these provisions together, than anything the Democrats have offered, and it goes directly to the issue which is instant jobs, stimulating the economy immediately.
HH: Senator Alexander, let’s talk about the 4% mortgage. Who would be eligible for that creditworthy…but up to what level and in what parts of the country?
LA: Well, in all parts of the country, creditworthy, and it would not be jumbo mortgages. So it would be those mortgages that are now eligible for FHA loans.
HH: Okay, and then in terms of the $15,000 tax credit, will that be only on new home purchases or existing home sales as well?
LA: No, it would not be first time buyers. It would be anyone buying a principal residence.
HH: Okay, very good. Those are very broad-based stimulus. Do you think you have Democrat votes to pass those?
LA: Well, we’ll see. I mean, the President says he wants to work in a bipartisan way. We do, too, and the way we define bipartisan is we’ve got some good ideas that we think make your bill better. Let’s see if we can attract his support and the support of other Democrats.
HH: Let’s turn then to a couple other of the spending issues out there. And there’s billions of dollars in this bill for ACORN. Now that’s not subsidizing anything except the permanent majority of the Democratic Party. Is that going to get challenged by an amendment?
LA: Well, I hope so. We’re challenging as many of those things as we can. Senator Coburn just offered an amendment to knock out provisions to subsidize movies in Hollywood, which we don’t think has anything to do with creating jobs today. So we’re coming up with a variety of amendments. But the fundamental problem is we need, it’s almost easier to refocus the bill on those things that actually do create jobs. Those could be building roads and locks and bridges and waterways and environmental clean up, all of that could help create jobs in the next few months. But only about $130 billion of the $900 billion fits that description, and only $50 billion of that, in my staff’s view, would effect this current year.
HH: I’ll have to get Doc Coburn on. I may have to argue that with him, because the movie business matters a lot out in my neck of the woods. But I don’t know what that $50 million was for, so we’ll have to find out about that. Now let’s turn to some politics. You lost a friend in Judd Gregg, you’re the number three Republicans in the conference. Does Bonnie Newman, the heir apparent of that seat, keep the Republicans with a functioning filibuster threat?
LA: Well, if the governor appoints Bonnie Newman, and I’ve heard he might, and that he might be announcing it as we speak, but first, Judd Gregg is really one of the most valuable members of our caucus.
LA: As I said last week, if he leaves, it would be like the Steelers recruiting Larry Fitzgerald right before the Super Bowl. I mean, we’re not going to replace Judd Gregg. And he served a long time, he has the right to go on if he wishes to. I hope very much that his successor gives us at least 41 votes, Norm Coleman would be 42. I can’t speak for whomever’s appointed. If it’s Bonnie Newman, she’s a very well respected person, long active in the Republican Party. She worked, she began her work with Judd Gregg, then for Reagan, then for Bush the first, and she’s been active in many Republican campaigns in New Hampshire.
HH: Now I want to close with a couple of questions unique to you, Senator Alexander. You were secretary of education. Last week, I had Jay Mathews of the Washington Post on talking about his new book, Work Hard. Be Nice., about the KIPP program, charter schools. What’s your opinion of that? Were they around when you were secretary of the education? Have you heard of them?
LA: Of course. The last thing I did as secretary of education in 1992 was write a letter to every school superintendant in America asking them to consider charter schools, because they were just getting started in the early 90s. They started in Minnesota, and I think there were not more than a dozen in 1991-92. I remember Albert Shanker, the former head of the American Federation of Teachers say that we could have a Saturn plant, which was a start from scratch auto plant, we can have a Saturn school. And that’s really all a charter school is. It’s start from scratch, and makes it easier to create a school where the teachers have the freedom to use their common sense to deal with the students who are delivered to them, or who choose that school. So I’m very much for KIPP, if that’s the group you’re talking about.
LA: …has done a fabulous job of meeting the needs of children. I’ve seen their work in Memphis and other places. For some of these kids, they go more hours, they go more days, they get more help. And when they do, they succeed.
HH: If you get a chance to read the Jay Mathews book, I recommend it to you, Senator. It’s amazing.
LA: I will.
HH: Last question, Zach Wamp is on my blog today, because he’s reaching out to bloggers in Tennessee as he runs for governor. Have you declared for a candidate in Tennessee’s governorship? You were governor for a long time down there. You got a favorite horse in that one yet?
LA: No, I found out that people didn’t elect me to tell them how to vote. I have a high respect for Zach Wamp. He’s a very, he’s a terrific Congressman. I’ll hate to lose him. And if he leaves and runs for governor, he’d be a fine governor. But we have two other candidates in Bill Gibbons of Memphis, Bill Haslam, the mayor of Knoxville. And I think the voters in our Republican primary ought to sort that out without my advice.
HH: Senator Lamar Alexander, a pleasure, talk to you again soon.
End of interview.