Sen. Alexander: Obama Should Focus On Jobs

The chairman of the Senate Republican Conference says President Obama should focus his State of the Union speech on jobs, debt and terrorism. If those three issues are better dealt with, says Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the U.S. can then deal with health care.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

What a difference one seat in the U.S. Senate makes. With the Republican Scott Brown winning in Massachusetts, the GOP now has 41 senators and a renewed confidence in its prospects and its opposition to President Obama. So, what could the president say in his State of the Union address tomorrow night that might constructively reach across the aisle? Well, joining me to address that question is the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, that's the number three spot in the Senate GOP leadership, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Welcome.

Senator LAMAR ALEXANDER (Republican, Tennessee): Thank you.

SIEGEL: Welcome once again. First, health care. If there are now 41 votes to block a health care vote, is the bill as it exists in the Senate dead or is there anything the president could say to resuscitate, say, part of it?

Sen. ALEXANDER: Well, nothing is ever dead in the Senate. What I hope the president does, Robert, in his State of the Union address is talk about jobs, debt, terror and if he stopped right there it'd suit me fine, because if he focused on those three and got them in a better direction, then we could deal with health care.

SIEGEL: But he's got to say something about this gigantic bill that reflects (unintelligible) right now.

Sen. ALEXANDER: Well, he does, but I think what he should say is that the lesson the first year is that I have taken too many big bites out of too many big apples and our big problem is jobs, our second is debt, our third is terror. I ask you to work with me on those. President Eisenhower a long time ago in 1952 said I shall go to Korea. There were lot of other problems in the country, but he focused on that, ended the Korean War, and the people appreciated it. I think if President Obama focused on jobs in the same way Eisenhower focused on Korea, he'd be successful and the country would be more successful.

SIEGEL: You said focus on debt. The president is expected to propose a spending freeze on the non-defense, non-entitlement federal spending. Do you welcome that?

Sen. ALEXANDER: I do. But it's only a very small step. The big problem is the entitlement program - the automatic spending - that's what's driving us into debt and that's what we need to be focused on.

SIEGEL: Back to health care, though. If indeed the president doesn't speak of health care and simply chalks it up to experience, it's the status quo for another year at least. Do you regard the status quo as preferable to reforms that have been discussed or is there some mix of Republican priorities and Democratic priorities that could be approved shortly and that would be better than what we have now?

Sen. ALEXANDER: What Republicans have suggested was setting a clear goal of reducing health care costs and taking six steps. Just one of those, for example, was to allow small businesses to pool their resources to offer health insurance to their employees.

SIEGEL: But realistically, are we at a moment when if Republicans could see three of their six steps combined with three things that Democrats like and that you might not like that much, are we at a time when that actually can make sausage in the legislature? Or is this a time when nothing is going to happen?

Sen. ALEXANDER: Well, we could, but wouldn't it be better to say can't we find three things we all agree on? I would think allowing insurance to be sold across state lines to increase competition, reduce prices might be one of them. Usually, we agree on...

SIEGEL: But some people would say in that case, the risk you run is that the least regulatory state, the elusive state might put out insurance policies, might regulate them and there would be a race to the bottom and everybody would buy policies from state X where they don't do much in the way of regulating insurance.

Sen. ALEXANDER: Well, that's true, but that's a problem you would have to address in the legislation, but permitting more competition across state lines might be the better result. I think on any of these proposals, the difference between Democrats and Republicans isn't just left versus right. It's step-by-step versus comprehensive in our goals.

SIEGEL: But when you speak of Republican modesty and the step-by-step approaches to be problems, say on energy, the GOP's energy plan that you've spoken of...

Sen. ALEXANDER: Yep.

SIEGEL: ...it's 100 new nuclear energy plans would make half the country's vehicles electric, drill offshore, it's different from cap and trade. It doesn't sounds very modest. It sounds like a huge program.

Sen. ALEXANDER: Well, it's four steps, though. Each of those four steps is not a big surprise. It's these 2,700 page bills that are big surprise. I'll give you another example, something called America Competes, which we worked in a bipartisan way on in 2007. We asked the national academies what 10 steps could we take to keep our nation competitive? They gave us 20. We passed most of them. It was far-reaching, but it was step by step.

SIEGEL: Will you vote for Ben Bernanke's confirmation as Fed chairman?

Sen. ALEXANDER: I will. I think we're lucky to have had him at that job at a time when we very nearly slid into a great depression.

SIEGEL: A little over a year ago, the Senate defeated a move to deny then President-elect Obama access to $350 billion in bank bailout money and TARP funds. There were more Democrats who broke with Mr. Obama than there were Republicans who supported him. You were one of the handful of Republicans who supported the incoming administration getting the TARP money. Do you now regret that vote?

Sen. ALEXANDER: I do not. I gave both President Bush and President Obama unprecedented authority to deal with an unprecedented problem. Now I think we should end TARP. That would save $300 billion. I think we should get the government out of the automobile business by declaring a stock dividend giving all that General Motors stock to everybody who paid taxes last April 15th.

SIEGEL: But you accept the - I'll call it the narrative of what's happened with the financial crisis, which is we were on the brink of a much larger crisis than we have experienced, the extraordinary measures that were taken, the amount of federal funds that were committed were necessary to avert a real calamity.

Sen. ALEXANDER: The actions of the Federal Reserve Board, I think, were. I did not think the so-called stimulus bill, which was mainly a big spending bill, was a wise step. I thought that just ran up the debt, didn't help increase the number of jobs in the country in any significant way.

SIEGEL: Just before you go, in Tennessee, is there a recovery right now from the recession? Are things getting better?

Sen. ALEXANDER: Barely. Tennessee still has about 11 percent unemployment. We're not sliding backwards anymore, but we're not getting much better yet.

SIEGEL: Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. Thanks very much for talking with us.

Sen. ALEXANDER: Robert, thank you very much.

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