McConnell Says He'll Be A Force In Senate

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been talking tough since the November elections. After the GOP won big in November, he pronounced his No. 1 political aim: to make President Obama a one-term president. In December, he showed his political acumen once again — forcing the Democrats to extend the Bush tax cuts and to scrap an omnibus bill. He promises to continue to be a force in 2011. Melissa Block talks with McConnell about the GOP agenda in the weeks ahead, including the repeal of the health care law and reductions in federal spending.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And now to the other side of the aisle: To Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky.

Senator McConnell, welcome to the program.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Minority Leader): Glad to be with you.

BLOCK: We just heard Senator Reid there saying that Republican efforts to repeal the health care bill are, in his words, nonsense. He says the bill isn't perfect but it's good for the American people and rather than repeal it, you should improve it.

What to do you say to Senator Reid on that?

Sen. MCCONNELL: Well, the American people took a look at the 2,700-page monstrosity that cleared the Senate Christmas Eve of 2009 with not a vote spare. And it was a huge issue in the November 2nd election. The American people expect us to try to repeal this hopelessly complicated proposal, which will drive up cost, complexity, and make American health care much more difficult.

And so I'm pleased that the House is going to take it up. And we're going to make sure that the Senate has an opportunity to vote on it, as well.

BLOCK: It's interesting when you look at the poll numbers on this, because there's reasonably even split on repealing it - more favor it than don't but it's not overwhelming. But individual components of the bill are very popular: guaranteeing coverage for pre-existing conditions, for example. So what about those provisions that Americans seem to like a whole lot?

Sen. MCCONNELL: Well, we need to not only repeal this bill, we need to replace it with something else. And some of the insurance reforms that you've mentioned are very likely to be in a replacement bill that would be much more simple, more easily understood, and crafted in such a way to drive down cost.

BLOCK: Senator McConnell, when you look at the numbers coming out from the Congressional Budget Office estimating that repealing the health care bill would add $230 billion to the deficit, does that give you pause?

Sen. MCCONNELL: Well, it only gives you pause if you understand the CBO can only look at the particular way that it's crafted. It was jerry-rigged in such a way to basically hide the $700 billion in additional costs that Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, indicates would be the true cost increase of the package.

I don't think anybody seriously thinks that this is going to drive down costs. In fact, health insurance costs are going up all over the country right now in the wake of this.

BLOCK: You don't buy the argument that those health care costs would be going up regardless, that they're not affected by health care because so many provisions haven't gone into effect yet?

Sen. MCCONNELL: Yeah. No, I don't buy that. I've been in conversation with too many companies who are looking at the impact of this and responding to it. I think everybody is trying to adjust to this massive change in American health care. And it's doing exactly what Senate Republicans predicted during the debate: driving up cost.

BLOCK: Senator McConnell, we also just heard Senator Reid there say that he doesn't think you really meant it when you said, back in October, these words: The single-most important thing that we - meaning Republicans - want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.

And I'm wondering if you stand by that wording that the...

Sen. MCCONNELL: Oh, yeah. I do stand by it.

BLOCK: ...single-most important for Republicans...

Sen. MCCONNELL: Obviously it's not surprising that the Republican leader of the Senate would want a Republican president in January 13. But that's only half the story.

The question is what can we do between now and then for the American people. And I think the tax relief measure that Vice President Biden and I were able to broker back during the lame-duck is a good example of the kind of bipartisan cooperation that we can engage in in the next, you know, year or so.

We've had an election every two years since 1788. It doesn't mean you don't do anything, but it shouldn't be surprising to anyone that Republicans would like to see a Republican president in a couple years.

BLOCK: But to call it the single most important Republican goal?

Sen. McCONNELL: The single most political - the most important political goal. But in the meantime, we're here to govern. The American people didn't send us here to do nothing, and there are a number of different areas in which we could conceivably find ourselves making progress.

We just did make progress by preventing a tax increase from going up January 1st. The president has indicated he wants to pass trade agreements. I'm in favor of that. Those are things - the kinds of things we can do.

But yes, when the next election rolls around, I'm certainly going to do everything I can to help elect a Republican president of the United States.

BLOCK: So even if those things that you're talking about that might be room for compromise with the Democrats would help the re-electability of President Obama, you think that's okay?

Sen. McCONNELL: Well, look. I mean, you know, we weren't sent here to do nothing, and he's in the White House. The Democrats control the Senate, and Republicans control the House. Neither party has total control. The question is: Will we sit here and spin our wheels, or will we try to do some things together for the American people? I prefer the latter.

BLOCK: You've got another vote there pending in Congress before March on whether to raise the debt ceiling, and I know Congress heard this week from the Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, warning about catastrophic consequences if that limit is not raised.

You have said that you see this as an opportunity to get the fiscal house in order. I wonder how you would do that and what it would take for you to be a yes vote on raising the debt limit.

Sen. McCONNELL: Well, it is an opportunity. I mean, we all know that the country is drowning in a sea of debt, and nothing underscores that like the decision to raise the debt limit. So it's an opportunity for us to work together and see if we can make some significant progress on spending and debt. So I think both parties ought to welcome that opportunity.

BLOCK: Would you be willing to risk, say, a government shutdown if there is no consensus?

Sen. McCONNELL: Well, we're not talking about that. What we're talking about is taking advantage of this opportunity to do something important to reduce spending and debt, and what better time to do it than when you're voting on raising the debt ceiling?

BLOCK: And what would your ideas be on ways to get there?

Sen. McCONNELL: Well, we'll be happy to discuss that with you at the appropriate time. But what is a better time to talk about addressing spending and debt when you're called upon to vote to raise the nation's debt ceiling? I think it's the perfect opportunity for both sides to come together and do something significant.

BLOCK: Okay, Senator McConnell, thank you very much.

Sen. McCONNELL: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

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