SEN. SANTORUM: I'm Rick Santorum. I'm the chairman of the Republican Conference. And we have been meeting over the past couple of hours to talk about what our priorities are taking on this next session of Congress, and it was a clear consensus of our members what the highest priority items that we should be dealing with.
First and foremost is getting this economy going and creating better jobs and, as we saw yesterday, taking care of those who have fallen through the cracks as a result of the soft economy.
That was our first and highest priority, and we're looking forward to working with the president and his plan to revitalize this economy and getting that up and going very, very quickly.
Second. Obviously, as -- the threats both abroad and domestically, homeland security and national security, are obviously very, very important during this time when we're conducting a war on terrorism and potentially engage in another war overseas. And so, supporting the president and working with him to defend this country is a very, very high priority for us.
Thirdly, back on the domestic front, there is -- really, I can't think of any higher priority at home than getting a stronger and more secure Medicare system which will include the prescription drug benefit for seniors. That's something that -- frankly, we all agree that time has run out for finger-pointing. We need to get this done, we need to get it done in a responsible way, but to get it done in a way that does not threaten the long-term health and viability of Medicare and takes care of those seniors who are really in need.
And finally, the final two issues are -- education. Education, education the president has drummed into our heads over and over again with his leave-no-child-behind bill, and we believe that the implementation of that act, which is going to really start to kick in this year, is a very important -- very important affair. There is a lot of -- there are going to be a lot of attacks on that issue, and we need to be supportive of the president, the implementation of that act, and supporting him and the resources he needs to make sure that this is successful.
And finally, as we are engaged in things overseas, energy becomes even a more important issue. We look back a couple of years ago and saw the dramatic spike in energy prices that drove us into this recession and slowdown that we're in. We are very concerned about that and believe that an energy bill that focuses in on both conservation and responsible use of energy as well as new production of energy sources here at home is a high priority for this Congress, and we'll be acting expeditiously on that.
SEN. HUTCHISON: We also talked in our caucus about the importance of inclusion, of putting forward an agenda that shows that we want every American to have the opportunity to succeed and to reach his or her full potential. We will be continuing to push education and excellence in public education, because that is the beginning of everyone's capability to succeed. We are going to continue to increase funding and attention to historically black colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions to make sure they have the resources they need to serve their constituencies and give them the best chance to go into job market and to be able to do well.
We certainly want to continue to make sure that small businesses have access to our economy and especially to federal projects and funding opportunities. This is something that we have pushed in the past and we will continue to make sure that there is access for all of our people.
So, we are going to focus very much on inclusion; making sure that people know through leadership summits that we have had in the past year, bringing in Hispanic leaders, women leaders, African American leaders from around the country, to hear from our colleagues and also members of the administration. These were quite successful last year and will be repeated again this year. So, we are very excited about this opportunity, and I think everyone in the caucus is very pleased to try to embrace and adopt the openness that we all feel.
SEN. KYL: Well, you've seen the broad outlines the Republican policy agenda laid out. Let me just tell you briefly what the policy committee does, and as chairman, what I do. We, among other things, help with the committee chairman of the leadership to develop this policy, of course, following the lead of President Bush and the development of his policy agenda.
But here's what might be of interest to you; I talked to Senator Frist about this. As you know, he came to this position as a heart surgeon. He would meticulously prepare his cases before he made that first critical incision. And he didn't have any chance for mistakes, for second chances; he had to get it right the first time. I practiced law for almost 20 years, including before the U.S. Supreme Court, and similarly, you don't misquote something to the Supreme Court; you've got to get it right the first time. You've seen Mitch McConnell argue from meticulous preparation on the floor of the Senate, as well as my other colleagues here. Our pledge to our colleagues is -- and to all of you -- that we will present the best researched, most analytical product that we possibly can in carrying out these debates so that the American people will know that what we propose to you is based upon sound evidence, analysis, fact, and that you can bank on the word that we give to you. The product that the policy committee will put out will be a quality product and enable us to win these battles on the floor of the Senate, as well as to help educate the American public.
SEN. ALLEN: I'm George Allen, chairman of the Senatorial Committee. My main role is to make sure that we maintain, and hopefully also expand, the number of Republicans in the United States Senate.
We're in the majority, thanks to the great work of Bill Frist, now our leader, and a lot of other senators and staff who worked hard.
All of this is very relevant to what I'm going to be trying to do in this position, and that is, now that the Republicans are entrusted with leadership in the Senate, the American people want to see action. They want to see ideas going forward. They're sick of the obstructionism that they saw in the past. And so I think it is very crucial for us to keep moving forward, as we did on the first day, and making sure that Americans have better job opportunities, they're more secure in our homeland and abroad, make sure our children are getting a good quality education, and make the improvements that need to be made in health care -- in particular, an affordable, reasonable prescription drug plan, especially for those with catastrophic drug costs.
How do those apply? The Republicans are in control. I think one of the key factors in how we do in November of 2004 will be determined a great deal by how we do in the first six months of this year. People will see the Republicans don't care to just be in power to be in power, but to be there to help and positively impact the lives of all Americans.
I look forward to working with this leadership and our colleagues for all the American people. And hopefully in 2004 we will have recruited good new candidates, quality candidates, as well as make sure our quality incumbents are sent back to keep working for America.
Q Senator Frist?
SEN. : Rick's going to --
SEN. FRIST: Go ahead.
Q Hi. I was wondering, Senator Frist, if there was anything beyond what Senator Hutchison outlined that you want to do to heal the racial divide that you mentioned a few weeks ago, and also whether you're planning on supporting the nomination of Charles Pickering, which has contributed to some of that.
SEN. FRIST: Two questions, I think, essentially: first of all, the issues surrounding inclusiveness and racial reconciliation, and the second, which I'll probably defer -- I wasn't on the judicial committee, but -- the Judiciary Committee -- will refer (sic) to Senator McConnell on that.
We talked in our caucus today about the issues surrounding inclusiveness and the issues surrounding -- raised -- some -- really much beyond that, but what is the very best way for us to address that, in many parts, because in past, certain peoples have neglected addressing it right up front. And we have a tremendous opportunity, I believe, as we think over the next few weeks together, as a caucus, of the best way to address it.
The most common question I get -- so what I promise is the dialogue -- is the listening, is the learning, is the recognition that all of us broadly, not just Republican, Democrats, but as an American people, have failed to address this as directly as we might. And so that's my pledge. And you will see there will be meetings, and right now we're beginning to schedule meetings, We just started yesterday, but we're beginning to schedule meetings to carry on that dialogue, both in an organized as well as an informal basis.
Secondly the most common question I get is, what kind of legislation are you going to put through to demonstrate that you're serious and you're going to be different, not as individuals, but as a government? Again, not Republican or Democrat. I'm going way beyond that. And I can cite the issues and we talk about the issues, and there are many. You can go through the list. Funding of historically black colleges and medical centers is one that was mentioned, but it goes beyond that. Faith-based initiatives, something that Senator Santorum and all of us feel strongly about that the president of the United States -- which needs to be addressed and, I would say, addressed very aggressively.
If you look at issues in health care, there are many. Most of you know that I was the lead sponsor on the Health Care Disparity Act, where, for reasons we don't fully understand, but we've got to face and we've got to elevate, we know that African Americans today do not live as long, don't have the same access; that doctor-patient relationship in some way is colored by the medical training. And that's something I began to address a long time ago and will continue to address.
Again, without going through a laundry list of issues, we just had a long discussion about global HIV/AIDS, which all of you have heard me say is a moral travesty that we as a government have not addressed. And it just so happens that about 90 percent of the HIV/AIDS cases are in Africa. And it's something that I'm committed to address.
And the list goes on and on. I guess what I can do is reassure people that it's a very important issue to us as a caucus and, I would say, the entire United States Senate, obviously, and the Congress, and not just reflexively putting out the bills and saying this is a good marker, that we care, but try to address it in a sophisticated, in a mature, in a thoughtful, in an inclusive way, bipartisan, nonpartisan, reaching out broadly. We've got a lot to learn, and my pledge is that we're going to be learning as we go forward.
Let me -- on the Pickering question, let me just turn to --
SEN. MCCONNELL: Yeah. Leader, I would just add one other issue too, to your list. And the -- I was one of the principal sponsors of the election reform bill last year, and I can tell you that the leadership conference on civil rights believes that adequate funding for election reform this year is one of their top priorities, and we intend to work to see that that happens.
With regard to Judge Pickering, as a member of the Judiciary Committee last Congress, I had an opportunity to be in the hearings, to listen carefully to Judge Pickering's testimony. It was my view that he was given a raw deal by the committee. This is a man who testified against the Klan in 1967 at great personal risk to himself and to his family.
I'm optimistic that the new Senate Judiciary Committee will give him a fair hearing, and if he deserves to be reported to the floor, as I believe he does deserve to be reported to the floor, he'll be given a fair shot on the floor of the Senate. It was our belief last year that had Judge Pickering gotten to the floor, he would have been confirmed by the full Senate. And I'm optimistic that A, he will get to the floor; and that B, he will be confirmed by the full Senate.
Q Senator Frist, are you willing, though, to put the Senate through what could be a lengthy debate and a filibuster to get Judge Pickering approved? And assuming the Judiciary Committee approves him early, when would you be bringing that nomination up?
SEN. SANTORUM: I would just say that the fact is that we've never seen a filibuster on a judge, and I think that would set a very dangerous precedent for the Democrats to begin filibustering federal judges. We have never done so. I think it would be very destructive to the institution if we went down that road.
Q Senator Frist, as majority leader, are you willing to say you support the nomination, the president's renomination of Mr. Pickering? And what's your response to --
SEN. FRIST: Let me just say on the nomination, because people have asked a lot since 4:30 yesterday -- the nominations have come over. I did not participate actively in that debate or discussion, have not been on the Judiciary Committee. What I am hopeful for and what I will insist upon, as for all of the 31 nominations that came over, that systematically their qualifications are addressed, that we do it outside of rhetoric, but look at the facts themselves, and then we'll assess at that standpoint.
And that's the great thing about our system, is that once the nominations are made, if we're committed to principle and to truth, when we take that oath that was taken yesterday, in and principle in truth, what we all have to come back to, that each of these nominees will be evaluated in a fair and equitable way.
Q But at this point you haven't taken a -- staked out a position on Mr. Pickering. What's your response to Democrats who say that the Pickering nomination will undermine your pledge of new inclusion, though?
SEN. SANTORUM: I'll answer that question, and the fact of the matter is, you've heard a very detailed description of a lot of things that have been working on. There's many other things that we've been working on, Kay and I have been working on, that were not discussed today. The fact of the matter is, Judge Pickering, as Mitch said, was someone who was out front leading the charge for a racial healing in Mississippi, had the support of every African-American group in Mississippi. I can't remember the number of African-Americans from Mississippi who came here to support Judge Pickering. But we -- what -- there may be some groups out there who have an agenda that they don't like Judge Pickering's decisions. But that has nothing to do with -- and they don't like a lot of President Bush's nominees' decisions. But that has nothing to do with Judge Pickering and his history, which is exemplary, and the issue of race.
Q Senator -- go ahead.
Q Just a follow-up. I wanted Senator Frist to talk about -- knowing what he knows of -- knowing what you know of Judge Pickering's record, can you speak to his record and how do you support it?
SEN. FRIST: Well, I -- you know, I'm not sure this press conference needs to be on Judge Pickering, especially the whole conference. But let me just say, I haven't sat through any of the hearings. So I'm speaking having observed from afar. And I reserve the right to look at the information and the facts: promising to use principle, promising to use truth as we go through. But, let me say that Judge Pickering is, I believe, extraordinarily qualified, based on what I've heard, to serve as an appellate judge. The American Bar Association gave Judge Pickering a well qualified rating, a rating that the Democrats in the past said is the gold standard.
I know that Judge Pickering has dedicated his life to public service. He's got a long commitment to promoting civil rights. He testified against the Imperial Wizard of the KKK for firebombing a civil rights activist. And I believe that was 1967. He has served on the board of Institute for Racial Reconciliation in the past. That's what I know today. And I'll be interested to follow and to participate as far as I can as we go forward, but coming back to truth, principle and facts.
STAFF: A few more questions.
Q Senator Frist, you've talked in general terms about the need for changes in Medicare, but because of your experience, you must have some fairly specific ideas about what you'd like to see done there. I was wondering if you could share any of that today about how much Medicare needs to be changed and what specific areas -- (off mike)?
SEN. FRIST: Yes, and the issue is Medicare, and I would expand that to health care, and I would expand it to the uninsured and the portions of our population -- the segments of our population that simply don't get the quality of care that I believe Americans deserve. And you've -- many of you have heard me talk about the uninsured with legislation in the past before assuming majority leader, and I'd like to see much of that legislation be addressed. Health care disparities, minority versus non-minority populations, is something I feel strongly about. So you'll see that elevated. So when we say Medicare, prescription drugs, which is what everybody thinks about, let's not forget that there are many health care challenges, which I would call crises, out there today.
But yes, as majority leader -- as majority leader and having a right, to some extent, to set the agenda that I'm very hopeful that we can address. Medicare itself; it is -- I say this as somebody who has taken care of thousands and thousands of Medicare patients with my hands, period -- not period, comma -- I've written myself thousands and thousands of prescriptions. Unfortunately, when I write them to Medicare patients, I know that some of those prescriptions are never going to be filled because there is not any help in Medicare -- a little bit of an exaggeration, but any help today. And that extends from transplantation to heart surgery to lung surgery -- I've just been there.
Now, I can't solve it all; I don't know how to solve it all. But it's going to take, again, working across the aisle; working with legislation that, in part, came out of the Medicare Commission in the past; building upon bills like the tripartisan bill and the Democrat bills in the last Congress so that at the end of the day, we strengthen Medicare; we make Medicare more secure in the sense that what a senior really worries about is what's going to happen to be if I get sick. And Medicare today, because it has been outdated -- it hasn't changed very much since 1965 -- needs to be strengthened and it needs to be improved. And I'm committed to do that, and as a part of that, I very much, based on what I just said, think that a prescription drug benefit needs to be a part of Medicare as part of that strengthening process.
STAFF: Last question.
Q Nobody's mentioned holding the line on federal spending, which is a priority of President Bush. Where, on the list of priorities, do you place holding the line on federal spending or reducing it?
SEN. SANTORUM: I think the president's been very, very clear that in a time when you're in a recession and a time when you're at war, you have to focus on, number one, winning the war, and number two, trying to get this economy up and going. And I think if you look at the history, that if the economy is strong, deficits go away. We saw that in the 1990s. Spending was historically very, very high, yet the deficits went away and we went into surplus.
I think the president believes first and foremost we need a strong economy and we need to fight the war on terrorism, and potentially there may be other conflicts that we're going to engage in, and deficits have to take a back seat to that. Now, having said that, he's also been very, very clear in holding the line on spending and appropriation bills. He's had very tough numbers. We're going to meet those numbers this year. You heard the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Ted Stevens, talk about how they're going to go down to the president's number, because the president has held a firm number. I think he's going to come forward with a budget that will, obviously, spend more on homeland security, national security, that will do something to try to strengthen this economy, and on the rest of the budget, where there are quote, you know, some lower priorities, he's going to hold the line. There will be areas where there will be increases. Education will be one. Election reform. There will be areas we increase, but overall I think he's going to be very, very tough in holding the rate of growth in government spending in the rest of the budget.
With that --
Q Will you -- (off mike) -- ANWR as part of the energy package again this session?
SEN. SANTORUM: Absolutely. ANWR would have come out of the committee when the Democrats controlled it had there been a vote in committee. We will go through the committee process, and there will certainly be enough votes to get a strong, comprehensive energy bill through that's needed for this country.
We've got to wrap it up. Thank you.