- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The following is a transcript of an interview that Charles Hurt of The Washington Times conducted Tuesday with Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the Senate Republican Conference:

Q. What is the Republican agenda this year?

A. “Securing America’s Future” is the whole crux of what we’re trying to accomplish. We just thought it was very important to have a positive agenda, a substantive agenda that ties together what we’ve heard from folks back as to their concerns about the future of this county.

Obviously, first and foremost is national security. We call it our “Securing America’s Freedom, Homeland and Borders.” That sort of sums up the war on terror, what we are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the security issues surrounding Iran and the Middle East, the Palestinian relationship. And then, of course, the borders aspect — which we’ll be dealing with shortly — is the issue of immigration.

The second issue that we consider a priority is securing America’s competitiveness in creating jobs through a growing economy. That centers around, obviously, trying to pass legislation dealing with, obviously, taxes, the pension bill that we are dealing with, the budget that we have out there, trying to control the rate of growth of spending. All of those things are part and parcel of trying to create a more competitive environment from the standpoint of business environment.

The second aspect, which the president has talked about and a lot of our guys are pretty hepped up about, is the idea of education competitiveness in math, science and engineering. I’m going to be introducing a bill this week on it. Others are going to introduce legislation to try to improve our quality of education from the standpoint of making our work force more competitive in the years ahead.

The third area is securing affordable and accessible health care for all Americans. That’s a priority because I can tell you — from the business community, as well as from individuals — the cost of health care, the cost of health insurance, the lack of access to insurance by so many people is a huge problem, an increasing problem in America. We’ve got a solid set of proposals that are out there. We hope to do, this spring, everything from medical liability reform to small-business health-plan reform. And then further expansion of [health savings accounts], which have shown that about a third of all the folks who have signed up for HSAs were previously uninsured. We want to expand that to create better access to health insurance.

The fourth one is securing America’s energy independence. Here we have [the proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge], which continues to be the saga. We have the off-shore drilling issue that just came out of committee. We’re having a meeting actually later today to talk about an even broader package of energy legislation, maybe dealing with renewables and some other things that would add to the energy bill we were able to pass last year. We’re trying to have a robust energy agenda to create independence, which is, obviously, important from both an economic, as well as a national security, point of view.

Finally, secure and safe and quality education for all Americans. That is, obviously, very, very important. One aspect of the education piece is competitiveness, but it’s also we have to make sure that our children are in safe schools. We have legislation coming out of the Judiciary Committee with provisions in there that protect children. We have the higher-ed reauthorization, Head Start — all of those things are going to be done in addition to the competitiveness agenda that I laid out earlier.

Q. How important is it to you to deal with border security completely before you get to a guest-worker program?

A. The conference would like to do a comprehensive bill. We want to do something comprehensive. Everyone understands that unless we have credibility with the public on the borders, then it’s going to be very hard to get any kind of guest-worker provision or how we deal with undocumenteds. It’s going to be very, very difficult to pass because we haven’t gained the confidence of the American public that we’re serious about what they believe is the bigger of the two issues, which is securing the borders.

I’ve even made comments to those who are concerned about the undocumented people — those representing them here, if you will — that they actually may be better off if we just do a border-security bill this year. Once the concern about the borders is alleviated, then the people will probably be a lot more rational than we’re thinking now. The effort here in the Senate — given where the votes are in the Senate, because of the agriculture interests and some of the business interests — you’re going to see some sort of legislation passed here, I suspect, that’s going to deal with the issue of guest workers/undocumenteds.

Q. Do you personally prefer to do them separately?

A. In the Senate, there’s no choice. Once you put a bill up like that on the floor, everyone’s going to come to it. My plea would be — if we can’t do that, and they couldn’t do that in the House — that at least we should do something on the border. If you can’t do comprehensive — I’m not opposed to it; I wouldn’t vote against it just because it’s comprehensive — we absolutely must do something on the border.

Q. Are you satisfied with how the prescription-drug plan has worked? What, if any, changes need to be made?

A. I’m not satisfied with how it was implemented. The mistakes are now legendary, in some cases mythical. I would not allow anybody who signs up after the 15th of the month to be enrolled in the plan for the following month. One of the biggest problems they had is the people who signed up under the legislation signed up December 31st, you were eligible January 1st. No one’s going to have their card. The pharmacist isn’t going to have the documentation. So, you’re going to end up with a situation where someone walks in and says, “I signed up. I’m part of this plan, and you’ve got to give me my drugs.” Yeah, according to the law, they do. That has caused no end to problems — late sign-ups at the end of the month. What you need to do is give a window for the system to function. I’ve heard a lot of concerns from pharmacists about how the system has worked — particularly from small, independent pharmacists, particularly where they’re the sole provider — to make sure that we have given the kind of market power that the pharmacist needs to be able to survive and make a profit.

Q. Have you heard a lot of complaints from seniors back home?

A. Most of the seniors in Pennsylvania have said they are confused. Many have chosen just not to get involved. We have very high rates of insureds prior to this, higher than most states. So, the folks who are certainly the neediest ones already had coverage in Pennsylvania, and they had coverage under this bill because they were transferred over. What we have in Pennsylvania is a group of people who are moderate-income people by and large who have just decided that they just don’t want to do this, and I think it’s just unfortunate.

Q. What cultural issues will the conference bring up in the coming months?

A. One of the most important amendments is marriage. That will be brought up sometime certainly before the August break, and hopefully a lot sooner than that. There will be issues relating to life, child-custody protection. The stem-cell issue is eventually something we’re going to have to vote on. There will be a lot of issues relating to stem cells that the pro-life community would like to vote on. The flag amendment is something that we’re certainly going to vote on.

Q. Why this summer?

A. With marriage, we’ve always been waiting for a trigger or a linchpin or something that happens within the courts that might give us a little bit more momentum. We did get a federal court ruling that a state constitutional amendment was unconstitutional under federal constitutional law. To me, that was a pretty good trigger, but we don’t have an appeals court ruling. So, we’re sort of holding off to see whether there’s going to be any kind of decision. We wanted to give some time. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, so I think we’re just going to move forward and vote the amendment.

Q. What role do the elections this year play in this decision?

A. Certainly, we want to have these votes on record before the election.

Q. Republicans have been in control for over 10 years, and spending still isn’t under control. Why is that?

A. Overall spending, yes, you’re right. The principal reason for that is the war and the costs associated with the war. It’s a little over $100 billion a year. It’s a pretty big hit. Anywhere from a third or a quarter of your annual deficit is the war, so that’s one aspect. This year’s spike is related to [Hurricane] Katrina. That’s another big expenditure. It’s probably going to be $80 [billion] to $100 billion. Those two big things have had an impact. Obviously, the fact that revenue actually went down substantially for the first three years caused deficits to be higher than we otherwise hoped they would be. That’s not because of the tax cuts. It’s because you had slow growth in the economy. There weren’t profits and there weren’t capital gains and all the other things that happen when you have a slow economy.

If you look at what Congress has done in that regard, one, we have a new entitlement program. It cost a lot of money — legitimate criticism that we were not fiscally responsible. On the other side … you have the Medicare program — which is a health care program for seniors — that doesn’t have something that is essential to providing health care to people in a modern health care system, and that’s prescription drugs. I can understand the fiscal argument, but I also can understand the argument that you need to provide that provision. One area where we’ve been good has been domestic discretionary spending. On defense, we had to respond to the Clinton build-down of the military.

Q. How are Republicans going to get spending under control?

A. Last year, we passed a reconciliation that did cut entitlements for the first time since 1997. It was $40 billion. That’s a pretty significant reduction in entitlements. To the president’s credit, he came with more entitlement reductions this year. The problem is that we don’t have the votes to pass that here in the Senate. We barely had the votes to pass the bill we did last year. In an election year, it’s just very, very tough. In the House, it’s very, very tough not to pass it. You have to understand that the House members come from districts that are drawn that have higher concentrations of conservatives, and senators come from areas that have folks that are all across the spectrum. I’m happy to vote for another reconciliation to reduce spending. I think we need to do more. Controlling the size and growth of government is exactly what Republicans are all about.

Q. What are three areas of the federal government where you would cut?

A. They have to be in the areas that threaten the long-term fiscal health of the country. Medicare and Medicaid would be areas where we have to find savings. We have to control the growth of spending there. I’ve voted for changes in those programs, and a lot more than what passed. I think I have a record of being willing to put my money where my mouth is. The third area is to try to keep the rate of growth in spending at the federal level at or below the rate of inflation on discretionary accounts. The entitlements are the key. And we have to do something about Social Security. But that’s not as much an issue of deficits as it is avoiding future tax increases.

Q. How much of a liability is President Bush in the upcoming elections?

A. When I ran in 2000, the president lost the state by five [percentage] points and I won by seven. So, I ran with the guy six years ago, and he did poorly in the state and I did well.

Q. How much will the lobbying scandals be a liability for Republicans?

A. I don’t see that as an issue that matters to most voters. I think most voters understand that we meet with lobbyists and that people come here and petition their government. What they want to see is what kind of record do you have with the people of your state. I’m very comfortable that I’ve got a record that is exactly in line with the people of my state.


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