The following are excerpts of a Feb. 9 interview with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican:
Mr. Frist: The 109th Congress gives us a great opportunity — us meaning the institution of the United States Senate — to start afresh and work together to move America forward to do exactly what the American people want us to do and that is to govern with meaningful solutions. We started with a bill that has — as demonstrated by the vote a few minutes ago — strong bipartisan support yet in a different environment could not be passed.
With the 109th Congress, some new people and a new spirit and a commitment of leadership on both sides of the aisle to work together, we had the first success. We started with the lawsuit abuse system with tort reform because it is a major initiative of this Congress — or this Senate — and this president. It will be the first of a number of legal and tort issues that I hope that we will be able to address, the first one being tort reform the second being bankruptcy, another issue that should have strong bipartisan support, yet the Senate has been unable to pass it in the last three congresses.
Then we’ll move into another huge issue that is the focus of the president and us and that is passing a budget that shows strong fiscal restraint. The American people had this impression that Congress spends like drunken sailors and we demonstrated in the last Congress that with non-security, non-defense issues that we could really have flat growth, yet the American people didn’t really feel it. In this Congress, it will be demonstrated by our actions that non-security spending will be fiscally responsible in ways that, at least, I haven’t seen since I’ve been in the United States Congress. …
The two overriding issues that are ongoing. yet aren’t on the floor, are Social Security, a major agenda item for the president and a major agenda item for this Senate, but one that is going to take much more engagement of the American people. And, therefore, for the timing of that — in terms of coming to the floor — I can’t predict, although I can tell you that every day meetings are being held in this office and really all over the Capitol on Social Security to engage members of the Senate and to hopefully engage the American people.
And the second big issue that is sort of dominant for the body that hasn’t yet reached the floor is judges and we can come back to the specifics of that. But in this Congress, I believe that we need to restore the over 200-year tradition and precedent of allowing every nominee of the president who has majority support an up or down vote on the floor of the United States Senate. It’s consistent with the Constitution, where we are as a body to give advice and consent and the only way we can give advice and consent is an up-or-down vote on the floor of the Senate.
Schedule-wise, let me just go back real quickly and lay out the next — from an agenda standpoint — the next, say, three months. We’ll start with these tort and legal or lawsuit abuse issues. The first one will be class action. We’ll move to bankruptcy, not this week but the next week. It is going through regular order in that, although the bill has overwhelming bipartisan support, we’re taking it back through committee so there were hearings today. It will be marked up in committee next week. And then, at the appropriate time, it will be taken to the floor, probably after the next recess.
Next week, I will move to addressing … the healthcare agenda. So, I hope to take the genetic non-discrimination bill, which is a bill I began working on six years ago, no seven years ago, that should be a bipartisan bill. We’ll take that to the floor next week. The first order of business, obviously, has been to address the president’s cabinet nominees and we will complete those with [Homeland Security nominee Michael] Chertoff probably Tuesday of this week. And then we’ll move into the phase of bankruptcy not this week but the following week, actually the first week back from recess.
And then we’ll move into the budget, which I hope to be able to complete by March 21st — a tall order given the fact that we passed a budget in the Senate last year but it got stuck in conference. A budget that is this fiscally responsible, I would say — meaning it’s tough — it’s going to be a challenge, but we’ll pass that. It’s absolutely critical that we pass the budget in the framework this year in order to have an orderly appropriations process. That is a goal for both [Minority Leader] Senator [Harry] Reid [Nevada Democrat] and for me and for the House of Representatives, a goal to have a step-wise, orderly appropriations process rather than resorting to what has become the norm and that is these giant omnibus bills at the end.
Q.: If you have to resort to the nuclear option —
A: Constitutional option. The nuclear option is what they did to me last year when they changed the precedent.
Q: The constitutional option is going to, nonetheless, be upsetting to the other side. How concerned are you about having the comity be disrupted right now and do those concerns make you want to put off these nominations?
A: No, but the implication is right. The judicial nominees we’ll take back through committee. And, so, although the president’s past nominees — or the majority of them — have been resubmitted, they do have to go back through committee so it’s an issue that needs to be addressed early on. The comity and the working together and the commonsense approach we’ve taken on class action, I hope, and will work hard to see that it happens, continues through many other bills, whether it’s the bankruptcy bill as well as consideration of the judges. Now, to me, that means: Let’s restore the tradition of 200 years, the tradition we had up to the last Congress, which is the precedent. So I will continue to appeal to the other side of the aisle in that regard. Let’s extend the good working relationships we have and vote against them if you want to but give us the opportunity to vote them up or down.
Q: Do you have the votes for the constitutional option at this point?
Q: The 51?
A: I can’t say that with certainty because I don’t know exactly what it will be but I’m confident.
Q: Do you have a timeline for when the judges will go to the floor?
A: The focus, as you can tell, has been very much on that Judiciary Committee so they’re going all out. But the judges will start coming soon. I just don’t know what the timeline is.
Q: You still plan on the first filibuster against a judge being the cue for the Constitutional option?
A: That’s probably an over-simplification because … everybody will be just waiting for that first judge and who the first judge is. There have been a lot of people telling people what my strategy is but I’ve not told anybody. So, everything that you’ve seen is not coming from me. My appeal — I make little tiny moves everyday in comments to Democrat colleagues, including the Democratic leadership, for example, today, and that is we really need to be talking and discussing the judges and what is reasonable. And that really is where we are today. But, you’re exactly right, I’m keeping the door open. I made it very clear that I found it unnecessary to, on day one, which would have been an option, to change the rules. So, the specific decision has not been made. I’ve got some pretty clear alternatives to use and, again, I’ll just continue to appeal to the other side to be reasonable.
Q: The House today passed the [Rep. F. James] Sensenbrenner [Wisconsin Republican] bill that has those border security initiatives and they added one other provision about expediting deportation for those ordered deportable. Do you support that and when will the Senate take it up?
A: I haven’t seen that provision just because I’ve been doing this so I don’t know what was added. The other provisions I generally support, but even those I haven’t gone through and dissected. I guess the administration came out and said they support them and I just haven’t specifically addressed them. And our leadership has not. In terms of how we address it or when, it just hasn’t been decided. It is, sort of, waiting to see how they handled it and then we’ll have to see. We get the supplemental that will come, what, next week. Probably will not be dealt with until after the recess and whether or not it is in some way addressed there or not, I just really don’t know.
Q: Have you thought through what principles you would support in a guest worker program? Do the folks now here illegally have to return home before applying?
A: I have not gotten to that specifics. And probably, I support [Texas Republican] Senator [John] Cornyn’s approach of doing a more comprehensive approach, not what the House just did, but rather than try to piecemeal immigration issues. There are so many different amendments and bills from guest worker, from what the House did — though I don’t know exactly what they did — to [Idaho Republican] Senator Larry Craig’s bill, which focuses on agriculture. Since we have so many things on the agenda right now with what I mentioned, plus energy and transportation, which are sitting out there just waiting for committee work, I think that we do have time to address immigration in a more comprehensive way. It doesn’t mean that we won’t necessarily address what the House has done. That’ll be what my bias is.
Q: The president has said he wants to see it this year, Mr. DeLay has said he wants to see it this Congress. Do you take a position between this year and this Congress?
A: I can’t say but I wouldn’t say anything more than this Congress and I’ll be supportive of at some time addressing it in this Congress. Given the fact that we only have 139 legislative days this year, it would be challenging to do but again the timing hasn’t been set.
Q: On Social Security, most experts say we either have to cut benefits, raise the retirement age or raise taxes. Do you agree one of those must be done, or some combination?
A: I would personally — not speaking broadly for leadership — not raising payroll taxes, but I would put everything else on the table. Everything. So, I have not — speaking personally — drawn any lines in the sand. The focus of the next two month will be educating ourselves and the American people. I think it is absurd for the other side of the aisle to argue that there’s not a problem. I think it is absurd for the other side of the aisle to stick their heads into the sand and hide from a problem that because of demographics — which are immutable, they can’t be changed — are approaching us as a tidal wave. The only responsible thing a legislator can do is admit there’s a problem, first, and then second, develop a plan to address the problem. And our immediate goal will have to be to get the other side of the aisle to admit, to recognize, to open their eyes to the fact that there is a demographic tidal wave that’s going to hit, which makes it impossible to fulfill the promises that government has made to the next generation.
Q: Are there any taxes you would consider on the table?
A: You know, I’m going to keep everything on the table except the payroll taxes. And that would really include — if we were to go that route, which I don’t think we in the Senate will — expanding into real tax reform as part of the Social Security debate. And we may move in that direction but right now, as I sit and listen to both sides of the aisle, I don’t hear anybody saying that the answer within the United States Senate is to address major tax reform as part of the Social Security reform. It may get to that point, but it’s not there yet.
Q: Can the Senate produce a budget that actually has a cut in non-defense, non-homeland security discretionary funding?
A: Yes, I think in the, sort of, non-defense, non-homeland discretionary sector that we can produce a bill that is consistent with what the president produced, which would be a real cut in today’s dollars. It has not been done in the last 12 years —and even before that, that’s how long I’ve been here. And therefore, it is a huge challenge, it’s going to require leadership by the president and by leaders in our body. It’s bold, it’s courageous, it’s the right thing to do. The American people want it and the American people deserve it. The budget process will adhere, I believe, to those numbers or come very close to those numbers. The specific priorities within reaching those numbers will have to be established by this body. And we will do that in a open way that will involve debate and amendment. And therefore the specific priorities of the president as to which specific program might be cut or added to will be subjected, I think, to real scrutiny and debate. I know it will because everybody comes into my office and tells me, “Don’t cut this program versus that one.” But I think the overall number that you addressed we can meet.
Q: Are you surprised the President hasn’t used his veto yet and do you believe a veto will be necessary in the future to enforce spending?
A: The speaker’s goal and my goal is not to send a bill to the president that has to be vetoed. So it does not surprise me at all that he hasn’t vetoed a bill because we haven’t sent him a bill that should be vetoed, or that the will of - I shouldn’t speak to the will of Congress - that the Republican leadership in the House or the Senate, one of our goals has been not to send him a bill that he would have to veto. It’s an important question because the issue with the highway bill - it could have very much come to that point. And right now the positioning that you’ll see that I’m taking with my own highway people is instead of passing the same bill as last year, which we simply cannot afford as a country, it is to use my best persuasion to report out of committee a bill that’s the president’s number. And nobody wants to hear that — nobody. The donor states don’t want to hear that, the recipient states. People love the highway spending and it is important from the infrastructure and safety standpoint to spend appropriately. But you’ll see where I’m focused and that is at the president’s number. If that’s the case, I know because I’ve talked to the administration that they want [$284 billion], the House is going to do [$284 billion] and if we are he won’t have to veto it.
Q: Republicans control the White House and both chambers of Congress promising to cut spending and reduce the size of government. What are three areas the federal government is currently involved in that you personally would like to see the government get out of?
A: Let me think about the three areas and come back. You’re right, the American people — not just conservatives —the American people do want fiscal discipline in terms of squeezing the waste, abuse and inefficiency out of government. They want a more effective, more efficient government and not a bigger government. They want a productive government. I think all those are key words because that’s how we’re going to have to achieve the flat or decreased spending in our discretionary budget. So, that’s one element. Secondly, the American people expect their legislators and elected representatives to address entitlement spending. It is easy for politicians and elected officials, since we don’t have to vote every year on entitlement spending, to look in the other direction. I believe the American people are ready for us to address it. I think that means that you have to look at areas like Medicaid — which, in this budget, the president has addressed — and Medicare where we have an unfunded liability, which is, you know, three or four times that of Social Security. I think in those two big areas, we’re going to have to act. We should act. This budget actually addresses both of those. I think in the last budget we did — in the last appropriations process, in part because of this big omni coming through — people don’t recognize that on the discretionary — the non-defense, non-homeland security — that we were as successful as we were in keeping it flat.
Q: On Medicare, do you believe the prescription drug bill went far enough in reforms, or will you revisit it?
A: We didn’t do Medicare reform per se in the last cycle. And that’s where the bulk of the spending in the past has gone, is the drugs that we added on. But I would argue that we need to move towards a consumer-driven, patient-friendly system that is much more tranparent, it injects much more competition, it injects much more preventative medicine, that injects much more consumer or patient responsibility, and that means we inject more information into the system, we inject more choice into the system. We didn’t touch that. And there’s huge savings there. Huge savings. That can be done. Still, Medicare is operating with a 1965, ‘68, ‘69 model, and it’s totally outdated.
Q: So, what are your three areas?
A: I’d say Medicare is an obvious area that in the next two years we’re going to have to come back and address. It’s driven by the same demographics as Social Security, but it’s much more complicated because of this inherent momentum of spending in healthcare today.
Q: We’re talking about cuts?
A: We’re talking about slowing the growth. I’d say Medicaid right now we’ll do 60 — probably, I don’t know what the net will be — but about 60 billion dollars. Two-thirds of the budget is entitlements and they’re what are growing the fastest. We’ve got to address those. This budget only does one of them — it’s Medicaid. But I’d list those two. And on the discretionary side, I would do similar to what — I guess I would do close to what the president is doing now where you’re just slowing the growth of all of it. You just basically saying what you had last year, we’re going to keep it what it is or take it down minus one or minus two.
Q: So we’re slowing growth. We’re not cutting.
A: Well the numbers in the budget are actual cuts. I mean if you’ve got inflation, what, at three percent and you bring the numbers down to minus one, that’s pretty good. It may be frustrating to people. And it’s pretty tough to do. There will be proposals to eliminate whole programs - and the president’s done that, I don’t know what they all are - and that’s good. That’s effective. But, you know, those programs are going to be overall pretty small —well, I don’t know the dollar figure — but what we really need to do is to slow overall growth or flat spending or cut spending across the board. Fiscal conservatives can’t argue with that.
Q: We just came out of the 2004 election where some Republicans believed it was the conservative message that delivered the win for the president. If you were the nominee for president in 2008, what message would you carry as the Republican candidate?
A: Put the hypothetical aside. Let me tell you what I’m doing. Right now, the last Congress was the most pro-Life Congress in the last 30 years. And I can say that not just in rhetoric but you can look. We started with the partial-birth abortion, we did pregnant women being two victims, we did the ban on human patenting, which we did in the omnibus. We introduced marriage — or the Senate did — proactively before the House did and before many people were talking about it. There is no question in my mind that when people look back at the last Congress that they will say that. This is outside of the economic, but from the social conservative movement.
Q: Would you say it was the most conservative Congress?
A: I would say the most pro-family and pro-life. Not that these are the only measures. We’re sort of shifting from fiscal to social issues. If you look over the next Congress, we’ll have to see what the definition is. You’ll notice in the top ten bills, S.8 was the Child Custody Protection Act. It’s a strong, pro-family bill. You’ll notice that joint resolution No. 1, which sends a signal, is that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. And that’s sending certain signals that we demonstrated in the last congress we’ll deliver on, not just signals, not just posturing. And, we’ll do that. We’ll do that in, sort of, a regular, periodic way, which reflects not just social conservatives but reflects where the American people are today.
Q: Was it the conservative message that did win for the president this time and does the 2008 nominee need to carry that same banner?
A: I think it’s way, way too early. I think the values issues were not why the president won but the fact that he is conservative, that he is pro-family and pro-growth, as well as strong on terror and fighting a war, all came together in a way that presented a fabric that captured the American people. In 2008? You know, just look four years ago. Where were we? You couldn’t have predicted anything, 9/11 and the likes. So trying to predict in four years where the electorate’s going to be I think is impossible. I mean, I know it’s impossible.
Q: Is it possible to begin withdrawing troops this year?
A: I’ve been to Iraq twice. I went six months ago — seven month ago — right after Allawi came in and was there two weeks before the elections. Things radically different. When I was in Iraq two weeks before the elections, based on what you felt and what you saw, you knew these elections would be transforming. People would just keep coming up and saying that they wanted to vote. And then talking to Karzai in Afghanistan where we were, he described the power of having women vote. So, we knew it when we over there. And you could just feel it. We came back and we said it. Here, everybody said, “[Postpone the elections.] Put them off. It’s no way they’re going to work.” It’s clear the security situation is going to stay bad there for awhile. It’s just going to be bad. Everybody tells you that — everybody. We have the former Baathist, people coming in from the outside, we have the hoodlums in the street. The insurgency has not underlying philosophy to it. That being the case, security has to be first and foremost. The elections were transforming, but security is not yet fully established there. The training is going on to the tune of about 4,000 soldiers and police a month. And, conceptually, as they increase our troops can come home. It’s not one for one, but I have confidence that, with time — and you can’t really extrapolate the 4,000 a month, but that was what we were doing when we were over there. If that’s the case — just like the 10,000 troops we lowered last week — it may well be by the end of this year, that we’ll be able to bring home some of those troops, given the fact that new Iraqis will be coming on board. I’m totally against timelines. I don’t think that we should be — in fact, I know — we should not put timelines out there. It is bad policy and I think it hurts the overall war on terror for people to be saying that we’re going to be withdrawing people on a certain day in the future.