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Senator Tom Daschle Holds First Press Briefing as Majority Leader

Aired June 6, 2001 - 10:14   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We will go live now; Senator Tom Daschle, as we said, is making his final press briefing as Senate minority leader (sic). He's moments away from being installed as the Senate majority leader. That will happen after he gets himself installed in this press briefing.

This is a briefing that he holds regularly with the press in Washington. This time around, it happens to be a bit more significant because of the change that he's about to go through.


QUESTION: So what's new?

SEN. TOM DASCHLE (D), SOUTH DAKOTA: Just another day at the office.

Well, this is quite an historic day, and you could read every page of every book in this room and not find a reference to a precedent that we're setting today. Never before in our nation's history has the Senate changed power and turned over the reins of responsibility to the other party, and so we recognize the historic nature of this important day, and we will begin our session at 11 o'clock this morning with the recognition of the new president pro- temporary, Robert C. Byrd.

I would acknowledge as well the...


HARRIS: We apologize for that technical interruption.

DASCHLE: ... I'm humbled by this experience. I recognize the awesome nature of the responsibilities that I will now hold, and I know that I have a job to do. I hope I can do it in a way that will serve not only my state and my caucus, but the country. I recognize that I have to prove to my Republican colleagues that I can do it fairly, and I will do all that I can to take those responsibilities seriously and fairly beginning this morning.

I want to thank Senator Lott for the partnership that he has provided over the many years. We've been through many challenges together, and with each challenge, I think we've met them in a way that has not only allowed us to maintain our friendship, but I think strengthen it.

This is another one of those challenges, and I hope that we can continue to find ways with which to work together on a mutual agenda. Both parties come to this body with a defined agenda, with passionate beliefs about public policy, with a recognition that the ideas that we bring are in many cases powerful ideas that we hope can become ultimately the law of the land.

As we hash out those ideas, what you hear is the noise of democracy. I think the noise of democracy is a beautiful sound. It may not always be stereophonic. It may not always be the sound that you want to hear, but it sure beats the noise of violence. It sure beats the noise you hear in other parts of the world, where the noise of democracy is not as vivid and as evident as it is here. And so, my hope is that through that noise of democracy will come a productivity, a recognition of bipartisanship.

Bipartisanship isn't just a formula; it isn't just 50+1. Bipartisanship is a spirit. Bipartisanship is a way of going about things. It's a recognition that with divided government, with divided leadership, comes a responsibility for united governance.

That's what I hope I can bring, is a sense of united governance, a recognition that we've got a job to do that entails taking the best of both parties, the best of all leadership, and making it the public policy and the law of the land eventually.

So those are lofty goals and this is yet another piece of rhetoric from a politician that you'll probably continue to hear a lot more from. But it's what I believe, and it's what I hope I can bring to the job. And I look forward to the responsibilities and the opportunities that it presents this morning.

QUESTION: Senator Daschle, do you think in light of what polls show that the country is really interested in, that the Patients' Bill of Rights, after education, which is already under way, that the Patients' Bill of Rights really is the first place to start?

DASCHLE: I do, I think that there is a very strong belief in our country today that one of the single biggest problems we face is in health care and an array of issues in health care beginning with the role of insurance companies and the role of doctors, beginning with ensuring that when people walk into a clinic or a hospital they have a better opportunity and more confidence that they're going to get the care they want. That's what the Patients' Bill of Rights is all about.

QUESTION: Senator Daschle, you talked about the noise for democracy. There are 570,000 residents of the District of Columbia that don't think there is democracy. There is a three-judge panel that ruled two to one that there should be no representation for the residents of the District. And they sent us to Congress, and there is now a bill which your colleague was sent out a letter, Senator Feingold and Senator Lieberman and Senator Clinton (OFF-MIKE)

What is the commitment now that the Democrats control the Senate to push that bill and actually have hearings in the Senate and actually a vote for full representation for the District of Columbia?

DASCHLE: Well, I believe in full representation for the District of Columbia. I always have, and I think it's long past due. I think it's important for us to put the emphasis that your question suggests. I haven't and will not make any commitments for my chairs this early in my tenure as majority leader. I'm going to be having a meeting with our chairs this afternoon to talk about agenda. But I would strongly suggests and believe that it deserves the priority and attention that this caucus can now give it.

QUESTION: Do you think there will actually be a hearing? As you know, from the state of the bill, this is not state (OFF-MIKE) it's just full congressional representation. There was never a hearing, it was an informational. Do you think the residents of the District will have a vote in the Democratically controlled Senate? When you talk about bipartisanship, are there any Republican senators who have ever expressed to you support for what you stated so unequivocally?

DASCHLE: I have not heard of any Republican support, but that doesn't mean there isn't some.

I just haven't had the occasion to talk to other Republicans about it. I would say that, as to the hearing, I will strongly recommend that we hold hearings and that we call attention to this issue. And that's about all I can commit to at this time.

QUESTION: Senator, obviously, the first time the Senate has changed power in the course of a Congress, could happen again, given that your majority is so narrow. Will this reorganization resolution you're working on recognize that possibility? And what would happen if there were a change if another senator were forced to leave office for one reason or another or switch parties on your side, what would happen to this current agreement you're working on?

DASCHLE: Well, the current agreement, of course, is only so good as long as we have the majority. If we were to lose that one person, my hope and recommendation would be that we pick up the power-sharing agreement where we left off. I think it has worked very well. In fact, I think it's exceeded many people's expectations. We no longer have a need for the power-sharing agreement, but it's always there. And I would hope we would adopt it were that ever needed again.

QUESTION: Senator Daschle, what do you think of Senator Torricelli's decision to go ahead and ask for a special counsel to investigate the criminal matter, review the case?

DASCHLE: Well, I respect Senator Torricelli's decision in that regard and support it.


DASCHLE: Well, of course, we have always maintained as the minority party in the last seven years that it was our right to offer amendments. And we certainly are not going to deny anybody in their minority party in the Republican Party the right to offer amendments. That's how the minority oftentimes provides for their agenda and for opportunities for their agenda to be considered.

So we respect that. The one thing I'm going to emphasize is fairness. You've heard us lament and in some ways criticize the majority when we were in the minority for the lack of fairness. I think it would be hypocrisy at its worst if we were to take the same tactics. So we're not going to do that.

I have never said that the missile defense proposals were not going to be heard or were not going to be debated. What I have said is that I don't support deployment right now. That's all I've said. We do support research, and we think there ought to be further research. But it ought to be shown to work before we deploy. We have to make sure we work through the ABM complications before we deploy. We have to ensure our allies are more comfortable with it before we deploy. And we certainly ought to be talking to the Chinese and the Russians about it more consequently before we deploy.

All those things have yet to be done. And that's why I said I don't think deployment at this point makes a great deal of sense from a public policy perspective.

QUESTION: Should Supreme Court nominees get to the floor of the Senate, even if they're not voted out of the Judiciary Committee?

DASCHLE: Well, we're not going to prescribe any particular way with which to deal with these nominees. We are going to respect the process that is in place institutionally and especially in the Judiciary Committee. If a nominee fails to be confirmed in the committee, if they fail to get a positive vote, we'll consider, as we have in the past when we were in the majority, the option of taking that nomination straight to the floor, regardless of the committee vote.

But I can't say unequivocally, one way or the other, what we would do in cases like that.

QUESTION: How does this situation differ from what it would have been, if you had won one more seat last fall and then had a (inaudible) majority with a new president of the other party? What's different from the change in power happening now, than if it had happened in January?

DASCHLE: I don't know that there is a lot of difference between now and then, in terms of its impact on the country. I think perhaps one of the big differences is that they used a budget and a reconciliation process that I would not have subscribed to, so that's in the bank, so to speak. And I don't know that would have occurred had we been in the majority in January.

We would have had a tax bill, but certainly not a tax bill of the magnitude and, in my view, the responsibility that this one represents. But now we start anew. This is a new chapter and a new day, a new page. I would like to be able to put that behind us and move on. But I hope I can bring the same attitude today that I would have brought, had I been in the majority in January. QUESTION: On that subject there, you're now preside as Senate Democrats (inaudible) a budget process that is partially completed, but not fully. You've got an appropriations level, the budget authorized of $661 billion and you got authority for the budget chairman to increase allocations or possibly use additional surplus for tax cuts. How will you preside over that process that you personally and most Democrats opposed? Are you going to accept the $661 billion? Are you going to try and change the budget resolution?

What will happen now in the implementation stage of the budget?

DASCHLE: Well, it's too early for me to answer any of those good questions. Those are extremely complicated questions that I think are going to involve a great deal of thoughtful consideration before we can make any judgment. These are the issues affecting the fiscal policy of our country for the next 12 months at least. And so, we've got a lot of work to do before I can come to any conclusion about how we ought to resolve the many challenges we face regarding budget and appropriations.

QUESTION: Do you believe, generally speaking, that the appropriators can mark up successfully to a $661 billion discretionary spending level this year...

DASCHLE: Well, I think it...

QUESTION: ... under your leadership?

DASCHLE: We're going to do the best we can, that's all I'm going to be able to say at this point.

QUESTION: Senator Daschle, the INC has been painting you as a partisan Democrat who will oppose everything the president stands for, and I'm just wondering what it means to you to be a partisan Democrat? That's a negative or are there positives to that?

DASCHLE: Well, I think being a partisan Democrat is what most people would expect you to be in the best sense of the word and that I have an agenda, a philosophy, that I hope I can articulate reasonably, effectively, but being a partisan does not mean you can't be bipartisan. And my hope is that while I come to the floor with partisan beliefs, I can leave the floor with bipartisan accomplishments, and that's, in essence, what I hope to do as majority leader.

QUESTION: During the last administration, Senator, the Democrats and yourself included, argued that the Republicans should have let President Clinton's nominees go to the straight up or down vote. Now, when you say you don't want to do what Republicans did because that would be hypocrisy, doesn't that almost compel you to provide an up or down vote?

DASCHLE: Well, we have every expectation that if the process is adhered to, if Democrats are consulted, we have the blue slip process in place. If we find ways with which to work through these nominations fairly, we're going to do it in each and every case. That's my determination.

QUESTION: Some of your colleagues have supported the idea of an investigation into the leaking by the prosecution that's been investigating Senator Torricelli. Do you think that's appropriate?

DASCHLE: I would want to consult with more of my colleagues and with others before I come to any conclusion about what would be appropriate and what would not in this case.

QUESTION: Senator Daschle, your discussions last night with Senator Lott's task force, we know that they were cordial and productive, but can you tell us what the outstanding issues are...


... on the resolution? And how long you think this will take? What you still have to work through?

DASCHLE: What could you possibly want to know besides the fact that they were cordial and productive?


QUESTION: Frank and open discussions?

DASCHLE: Frank and open discussion, yes. Mutually beneficial.


QUESTION: Are you near an agreement?

DASCHLE: We're near an agreement.


QUESTION: Are you near an agreement?

It was a question.

DASCHLE: Oh, it was a question.

QUESTION: Personally satisfying.

DASCHLE: Exhilarating.


QUESTION: Wait. Wait. Wait. Where is it right now?

DASCHLE: Listen, when I negotiated with Senator Lott those many months, he and I relied on a practice that I know must be frustrating and probably even infuriating for you, but it worked for us, and that was not to comment on the negotiations until they were completed.

And the reason why is obvious. I mean, the more you comment, the more potential there is for misunderstanding and the more there is for people to lobby and try to find ways with which to influence the outcome of these negotiations. And I don't want to do that. So you'll just have to bear with me. I can't really talk about it. We all agreed last night that that would not be in any bodies best interest. So it was cordial, productive and we hope that we can find the solution.



DASCHLE: I don't have one. What I did say is, I'm not going to jam them. I'm going to give them space. I know that these are issues that we hope we can work out collectively. And I don't see purpose served in putting the resolution before the Senate today. I'm not going to do that.

QUESTION: So does everything wait until it's done? I mean, does everything wait to move forward?

DASCHLE: No, no. Well, there are some things that may not be able to be done. You know, I don't know that we could probably move forward with nominations, for example, because we don't have a full contingent of members on the Judiciary Committee, and I think that would be required. But we ought to move forward with hearings. I know there are some hearings under way today. And I encourage our chairs to conduct these hearings just as they were originally scheduled. I think that that kind of business ought to go on.

QUESTION: What about the freshmen? What about the unseated freshmen, then?

DASCHLE: They have no position except to -- I hope as guests for these committees, as they take up the business of the Senate under those hearings. I'm sure that most chairs will recognize them, even though they're not officially recognized as members. But that's the dilemma we face, and that's why I can't wait indefinitely. But I have no intention of accelerating the consideration of this resolution until I think it would be productive to do so.

QUESTION: Senator Daschle, will Jeffords be the chairman of Environmental Committee?

DASCHLE: We haven't come to any conclusions about Senator Jeffords' specific positions yet. That's a matter that comes before the Steering and Coordination Committee and the caucus before I can say anything publicly about it.

QUESTION: When do you expect that decision...

DASCHLE: Well, obviously, one of the first decisions is the organizing resolution, because that puts in place the ratios in the committees which then allows us to make the other decisions that have to be made with regard to membership.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) happen first?


QUESTION: So who is the chairman of that committee now, Senator Reed?

DASCHLE: Senator Reed is the chairman as of this morning, that's correct.

QUESTION: Following up on an earlier question about the difference between getting the majority if there had been an election and getting the majority because a senator decides to leave one of the parties, does that effect in any way your view of your own mandate or as Senator Lott said, "your moral authority?"

DASCHLE: Well, it certainly doesn't effect what I view to be my moral authority. I think we have the authority to be representative of what I would consider to be the majority within the Senate. That is my mandate. Any time you have 51 votes, you've got a majority, a clean, clear majority. We have that, I'll be setting 51 place settings in my caucus every week from here on out. And by any definition, that's a majority.

But I also recognize it's a very, very slim majority. And just as President Bush I hope would recognize that he has a very, very slim majority, that the tenuous nature of our majorities require that we act accordingly, that we bring strong ideas to the table, that we bring passionately our debate for those ideas to the floor, but that we recognize at the end of the day, we've got to work together and find common ground. That's the only way we're going to govern in this split relationship, in this very difficult challenge that we face in governing with a divided government today.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) what are some of the challenges that you have reflected on that you face? And how are you going to deal with what is already going to be a much more difficult job?

DASCHLE: Well, I think that it is very difficult, and we watched Senator Lott struggle with it for seven years. You'll watch me struggle with it, hopefully, for at least seven years, eight, 10 years, I'm not sure. But you know, it is, it's especially difficult with the slim majority that I've just described. All I can do is to first demonstrate a degree of fairness that I think is essential to making progress.

I really believe, and some of you have heard me say this, I think the reason why you see as much polarization and obstruction on so many occasions is because one party most of the time -- it has been the Democratic party in the last seven years -- has not felt invested in the process. I mean, I think, I've heard more than once Democrats saying what do we have to lose if we blow up the place, if we stop everything?

There's nothing to lose. And so, what I want to do is to say, "There's a lot to be gained and a great deal to lose for both parties, if we're not both invested, if we don't both have an opportunity to work our will." They deserve an opportunity for their agenda, but I would hope they would recognize our opportunity for our agenda and that we've got to find, in that common goal of putting forth our agendas, as much common ground as the schedule and as the rules will allow.


DASCHLE: Is Dave McConnell in the room?


QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Dave McConnell. An incremental proposal with all 13 members of the City Council controls, is that the electorate, the local criminal justice system would be an elected attorney general. That would require what would be the quickest advance in home rule within 25 years. The House and Senate have to sign off on this. The local criminal justice would be a start, which would the Democratic majority Senate be in favor of the lessons of the district...

DASCHLE: I can't speak to the majority. I personally would be in favor of it, but I have not talked with my colleagues, to be able to say with any authority.

QUESTION: What does the Democratic Senate mean to the District of Columbia? Would there have been a Republican House, a Republican president, a Republican Senate? What would the residents -- how should they feel about that?

DASCHLE: Well, I would hope they'd feel good. I'm a D.C. resident.


QUESTION: A couple of weeks ago, you were speaking about revisiting the tax code. How important is that going to be to give you more room to maneuver in this budget that, basically Bush has (OFF-MIKE) and do you worry that there's a political risk in tinkering with it that the Democrats (OFF-MIKE) raising taxes?

DASCHLE: I don't know if you heard the question, but Janet (ph) was asking whether or not we're going to revisit the tax bill and what that may imply for further issues that are related. I may have provided you with a great opportunity of misinterpreting my remarks when I said we're going to revisit. We're not going to revisit anytime soon. I didn't mean that. All I meant was you can't pass a tax bill that sunsets in nine years and not know that you're going to have to revisit this question. You can't pass a tax bill that's automatically going to increase taxes for probably 33 million Americans because we haven't fixed the alternative minimum tax.

You can't pass a tax bill of this magnitude, $5 trillion -- that's the cost over a 10-year period of time when it's fully implemented -- and not have dramatic impact on the budget and on the implications for the economy in the future. You can't do that.

I know we're going to revisit it. We don't have the votes to revisit it today with any success. I'm not going to waste the Senate's time and waste the country's time doing that. I just know that at some point that reality is going to come crashing down on all of us, and we're going to have to deal with it.

QUESTION: Senator, to follow up on that though, aren't Democrats basically straight-jacketed by the amount of money to spend? I mean, aren't those...

DASCHLE: They are unless we find offsets. I mean, we'll probably have to find offsets for many of the things that we want to do, but there is a far greater constraint as a result of this bill than there ever would have been otherwise and that, I think, in part was the design of the Bush administration.

I'm probably going to have to go down to the floor. Thank you all.

HARRIS: With that, Senator Tom Daschle concludes his first press briefing as Senate majority leader. We want to clarify a point we made earlier, before going into this, that he is now majority leader; he was made so last night, after the end of the session yesterday. He is now officially Senate majority leader.

We heard him making some comments at the beginning, after his remarks saying that he does recognize the historic nature of this day.

Let's go to our Bob Franken, who's been standing by and listening to this as well.

Bob, I get a sense from listening to this that the tone is going to be much different from the last change we saw in Senate majority leadership.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Tom Daschle is somebody who speaks softly, but carries a big stick. Republicans say it's a big partisan stick. Daschle is somebody that some of the Republicans believe is not to be trusted, and of course, he addressed that today when he said, "I have to prove to my Republican colleagues that I can do it fairly." He made a big point out of saying, as President Bush said yesterday, that bipartisanship is going to be the name of the game.

He went on to say he may have a partisan reputation, one, in fact, that is probably accurate, but he says, Being partisan does not mean I can't be bipartisan. So the Republicans will probably respond to that; we shall see.

However, there are some changes that are already evident. What is next piece of legislation that will be coming up, after the education bill this week? The patients' bill of rights; that, of course, is one that has been emphasized by the Democrats for quite some time. The Republicans might not have been so quick to give it such an emphasis.

Some other interesting points in this dugout, as we call it -- it's something that Tom Daschle has held for years and years, and probably has never gotten as much attention as it got today: The question of the case of Senator Robert Torricelli came up. He is being investigated by a criminal grand jury in New York. That raises the question, of course, that he might be somebody, somewhere down the line, if things go badly for him, who might affect this balance -- which is to say other senators might, in fact, have to be resigned or possibly would pass away could change the balance in the Senate one more time.

So it's a very precarious majority that Tom Daschle holds, and he's the first to realize it.

HARRIS: That's exactly right, because he said -- as a matter of fact, I wrote down these words -- "The tenuous nature of this majority requires working together at finding common ground."

FRANKEN: He also went on to say, however, that President Bush should realize that the majority he got was also very thin. So he was saying, to the Republicans, Don't make too big an issue out of this, because we can make the same point about what happened at the White House.

HARRIS: Exactly.

Bob Franken on Capitol Hill, thank you very much.



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