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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President-elect Barack Obama is urging Congress to act quickly on a huge economic stimulus plan, a plan that could cost some $800 billion.

(Soundbite of speech, January 8, 2009)

President-elect BARACK OBAMA (Democratic Senator, Illinois): I know the scale of this plan is unprecedented, but so is the severity of our situation. We have already tried the wait-and-see approach to our problems, and it is the same approach that helped lead us to this day of reckoning.

MONTAGNE: Mr. Obama is calling for tax cuts and new government spending to revive the economy. Our next guest could help make or break that plan. Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell will be the most powerful Republican in government when the Bush administration leaves office. He leads his party in the Senate, where they have enough votes to stall legislation if they stick together, and he's led numerous filibusters in the last Congress. As the new session begins, Senator McConnell spoke to us from the leadership office on Capitol Hill.

What do Republicans and conservatives need, specifically, in this stimulus plan to support it?

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): Well, I think there's widespread agreement that action is needed. But we're all sobered by the deficit figures that have come out in the last few days, indicating this year's - the deficit is going to be $1.2 trillion. So, what should be the guiding, underlying principle with the stimulus package? I think the speaker - Speaker Pelosi - had it right when she said last year it ought to be timely, targeted and temporary. In other words, we should not use the stimulus package as an excuse to engage in long-term spending that makes our fiscal situation even more dire than it already is; it's pretty dire now.

MONTAGNE: What would qualify as long-term spending that you would not support?

Sen. MCCONNELL: Well, there have been suggestions by the incoming administration and others that the stimulus package is an opportunity to make long-term systemic changes. If any of these long-term systemic changes cost more money, then you're only exacerbating the preexisting problem. So, what kind of things would be stimulative(ph)? The new president may well agree with us on this, that putting more money in the pockets of taxpayers is likely to be stimulative. With regard to the concern that I just expressed about the size of the deficit, you know, one way of looking at aid to states and local governments might be to make it a loan instead of grants. I think they'd be more careful in how they spent it. There are at least two states I'm familiar with that don't want any money at all. Why should we give money to a state that doesn't need it and doesn't want it?

MONTAGNE: So, the emphasis here, as I'm hearing you, is on temporary, targeted; what about timely?

Sen. MCCONNELL: I think everybody agrees we should move soon, and I believe we will move soon.

MONTAGNE: Soon, though, initially was thought to be approximately the day that Barack Obama took office. That's not happening, right?

Sen. MCCONNELL: Well, that was unrealistic. I mean, the plan has not even, as we speak today, been produced in detail yet. I mean, the American people, before we spend close to $1 trillion, would like for there to be some hearings and some input. And Republicans feel like that they ought to have an opportunity to have an input, and it's not just a matter of pride for us. We represent in the Senate - Senate Republicans represent half the American population. To shut us out - and I don't believe that the new president wants to shut us out; in fact, he's assured me he doesn't.

MONTAGNE: But how, if you're talking about hearings, how can you keep the process speedy enough to jolt the economy and hold hearings and what not that take all kinds of planning and can drag out?

Sen. MCCONNELL: I think there's a good chance of getting it done by early February. That's pretty fast, as legislative work goes.

MONTAGNE: Does President-elect Obama's proposed $300 billion tax cut help make this morning palatable to Republicans?

Sen. MCCONNELL: Well, it depends on what form it takes, but you know, the one thing that unifies Republicans typically, from Maine to Mississippi, is tax relief. And depending upon how this tax component is crafted, it could well have broad Republican appeal and make it much more likely that the measure passes with broad bipartisan support, which is what the new president would like and what we would like.

MONTAGNE: If you are not satisfied with the shape or size of this package, is there any possibility you would resort to a filibuster?

Sen. MCCONNELL: Well, if you mean, will something in the Senate require 60 votes?

(Laughing) That's true of almost everything these days.

I don't think that this measure's going to have any problem getting over 60 votes.

MONTAGNE: And in fact, President-elect Obama has said he's targeting even a much higher number of Republicans.

Sen. MCCONNELL: Yeah, he would like to have the bill supported on a broad bipartisan basis. So, you know, we all understand the need to do something and to do it quickly, and I think how it's ultimately crafted will determine how many Republicans support it.

MONTAGNE: Could we go back for a moment to talk of the deficit? Which is a record deficit, $1.2 trillion, for this budget year. What steps would you support in the long run to lower the national debt? I'm asking, would you consider Social Security cuts, cuts in Medicare?

Sen. MCCONNELL: The two huge systemic spending problems we have long-term everybody is aware of; Medicare and Social Security are simply unsustainable. I expect the current economic crisis will actually show down our willingness and ability to tackle those issues, but they're there.

MONTAGNE: Well, it certainly makes it less appetizing, let's say, if there are more people unemployed, to talk about cutting Medicare or cutting...

Sen. MCCONNELL: Yeah, well, I, you know...

MONTAGNE: Social Security.

Sen. MCCONNELL: Exactly what's going to be done is another matter. We can't negotiate what can be done here this morning on this program. But what we do know is they're not sustainable at the current levels. It cannot be left alone in perpetuity.

MONTAGNE: Just a moment for a question on another subject. Senator, you've endorsed having a special election in Illinois to fill the Senate seat left vacant by Barack Obama. As of this morning, does it look like the man appointed by Governor Rod Blagojevich, Roland Burris, will be seated as a Senator?

Sen. MCCONNELL: Well, you know, Americans are clearly tired of hearing about ethical issues in Washington. My colleagues, my Republican colleagues, I think, to a person, would prefer a fresh start that allows the people of Illinois to choose their new senator. But candidly, if Mr. Burris presents the correct paperwork, he's going to be a senator.

MONTAGNE: Is there any Obama nominee that you foresee facing difficult questions in the Senate?

Sen. MCCONNELL: Well, I think the attorney general nominee, Mr. Holder, has got serious questions to respond to with regard to his role in the Marc Rich pardons at the end of the Clinton administration and some other matters.

MONTAGNE: Eric holder, that is?

Sen. MCCONNELL: Eric Holder, yes, I'm sorry. You know, beyond that, I don't anticipate trouble for the new president's nominees. I think most of them are people we're familiar with and have outstanding records.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for talking with us.

Sen. MCCONNELL: OK. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is the Republican leader in the Senate. His backing is critical as President-elect Barack Obama calls for an economic stimulus package. That plan could cost $800 billion. For more on Senator McConnell's career in Congress, go to npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR news.

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