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Sen. Pete Domenici Press Conference

Aired December 20, 2002 - 12:30   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, we go to Capitol Hill, comments now from Senator Pete Domenici.

SEN. PETE DOMENICI (R), NEW MEXICO... sadness in the air for a man who worked very, very hard to be the leader of the Republican Party. He did it with a great deal of zest, an worked very hard to get the job, and he worked very hard at it. At the same time, for many of us, particularly Republicans in the United States Senate, this is a day of real hope.

I had the luxury of, when Bill Frist first came to the Senate to find him on the budget committee. It was absolutely a joy to find a new member who worked hard, who could understand anything, could propose almost anything without a note, turned out to be an expert on education because he had learned about a budget. I'm here to suggest two things to our Republican leaders, and I'm going to go do that shortly.

One, I believe we ought to move the date, the date for selection of the new leader, we ought to move it up if at all possible from January 6th to an earlier date. Why? Because the United States Senate goes into session on the 7th. And our leader had had all of this time to work with budget staff, an appropriations staff to get ready, work with the White House on the very, very important issues that are there the very first day we get back, passing the appropriation bill for our country and getting on with the business of our country. So I'm going to ask if it's possible that we move it up and have a vote.

Now, frankly, I know there will be some that will say that's impossible, Senators and all not here. Well, I think this is a very extraordinary situation. For me, I'd like our new leader to have a couple of weeks to prepare. I wouldn't like him to be selected on the 6th and run the Senate on the 7th with some of the most important business of the Senate due in the first week.

Second, I believe it's clear, it's obvious, and therefore, we should select Bill Frist by acclimation. I don't think there's any question he's going to be our new leader. And I think we've moved along now, and when that happens, not only will he be the new leader, but there will be a new spirit of unification, and let's work together and get on with the difficult issues that confront our country and the Republican Party.

So the two things I'm going to work on for the next few hours is, can't we move up the official formal selection date for Bill Frist to be the new Republican leader, and secondly, can't we begin to talk about, and ultimately, elect him by acclamation. I'll be glad to answer any questions you might have.

QUESTION: Reporter: do you have a date in mind?

DOMENICI: Look, I'm not being cute, and I hope you aren't. I don't know. Somebody's got to sit down with a calendar. Senators are home, they're here, there, but what if we could do it in between Christmas and January 1st, that would be fine; we would have two weeks for our new leader.

QUESTION: Do you expect a soft landing for Senator Lott when he returns?

DOMENICI: I'm glad you asked, because it's obvious to me that our outgoing majority leader has worked very, very hard in the short years he's been a senator, and he has achieved a great deal. He is a superb senator. And to get where he is as quick as he did and lead us the way he has and actually be moved ahead with this president's agenda in a rather exemplary manner, he deserves a soft landing.

I don't know what that means to him, but surely the leadership in the United States Senate, Republicans, ought to be discussing with him and with others what it is that Trent Lott would like to do now, and is it possible to give that role, whatever that is, to him this year.

QUESTION: You say you're expecting a committee chairman.

DOMENICI: I don't expect anything, because I don't know what he would like, and who knows whether he would like some special task here, whether he would want to -- you understand, he's -- which is pretty typical of some of our leaders, he has not been a committee chairman. I was just thinking that neither had Howard Baker, and Trent Lott's not been a legislator in a committee, but neither was Howard Baker. He was on one committee a little bit, in Clean Air and Clean Water, and then he rose because of the other things had he done here.

QUESTION: How will this change affect the Republican agenda?

DOMENICI: I think the Republican agenda is going to be one that is going to be filled with hope, anticipation, and the major things that the president's going to try to do, we're going to be right there with him, helping him along, and they're big, big things.

You know, it's high time we fix Medicare and that we fix the lack of prescription drugs. I can tell you if this is the time and you need somebody in a powerful place to get that kind of thing done, we will select the right leader. This is clearly his agenda. Whether he was in this position or whether he remained in the United States Senate.

Just a minute. We might finish before you get to ask your question. I don't know.

QUESTION: Senator are you aware... DOMENICI: Let me finish. So those are two things without question. Tax stimulus, what do we do with the economy, no question we have to move on that and move rapidly. Senator Frist has some very, very concrete ideas and has been a serious player in that whole arena. So those three things are very, very important, Medicare, prescription drugs, and let's do something to get the American economy going a little stronger and a little more forceful than it is.

QUESTION: Part of the committee shuffling that's taken place in the new Congress involves yourself moving other from the top Republican on the Budget to the other committee.


QUESTION: Does Senator Lott's decision affect in any way what you plan to do? Do you still plan to take over that committee or are you giving any thought of...

DOMENICI: I'm a senator around here. I've been here a long time, second most senior on the Republican side. But no, I don't sit down and try to figure out that I'm the one that ought to work out something for Trent Lott. I'm going to be there if we work out something, I'm going to be helping. I chose to leave the Budget Committee. I could only have served two more years. That's why I left. I can serve six years on the Energy, and perhaps get some of the major things done.

So I would hope that I will be left to work where I can do that. I look forward to it. I think it's going to be an exciting year, and we're going to have the exciting jurisdiction when we have the energy and water problems of our country in the new committee that I'll serve on.

QUESTION: Your hometown newspaper reported today that yesterday, you underwent a shift in thinking, that you started out talking about supporting Lott still as majority leader, and by the end of the day, you had changed your mind after talking with Senator Frist.

QUESTION: Can you elaborate for us the details of your shift in thinking through why and when you came to this point?

DOMENICI: I didn't know that anyone was going to be running against him, and I had pledged to him that I would -- if we're talking about right now, with no time to meet and talk, then I would be for him. I talked -- he talked to me, Senator Frist called me. I don't know how many people he told, but he told me late yesterday, I was coming back from hunting on the eastern shore, and he said I'm going to run, a very brief conversation, and I said, wonderful. And I had given a rather lengthy interview to my hometown paper, perhaps at 12:00 in the morning. Something had happened in between, and I just told you what that was, so they wondered -- it was then reported by the media, and so I told them that something might be brewing, and that I didn't think Senator Frist would be running if he thought he wasn't going to win and that he hadn't been working on something.

So that's the change. That's how it happened. It was very simple. Have I been in touch with Senator Frist yesterday and this morning also. He called me today.

KAGAN: As you can tell, the story continues to move at warp speed. That is Senator Pete Domenici calling for two things, very, very strong support for Senator Frist to be the next majority leader in the Senate. He's so enthusiastic about Senator Frist, he's asking fellow Republicans to move up the date to sometime between Christmas and New Year's day to give Bill Frist if he is the next leader a head start on leading the U.S. Senate.


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