CBS' Face The Nation - Transcript
Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell discusses upcoming midterm elections and legislation before Congress
RUSS MITCHELL, host:
Let's go now to Senator Mitch McConnell.
Senator, good morning to you.
Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Majority Whip): Good morning, Russ.
MITCHELL: Let me bring an AP/Ipsos poll into play here. It says one third of Americans think in the war on terror, the terrorists are winning. Given the fact that the national security issue has played so well for Republican candidates in the past, are you worried at all about sentiments like that?
Sen. McCONNELL: Well, I think it is important to remind the American people that if the Dean Democrats were in charge, Saddam would still be in power, murdering his own people like he used to, it would be more difficult to engage in terrorist surveillance, and the prisoners down at Guantanamo would be treated better than American soldiers in the court system.
This election, Russ, is going to be a choice, not a referendum. And people need to remember what Democrats do when they're in the majority. You just saw the rather angry face of Howard Dean. That's what they do when they're in charge.
MITCHELL: Senator McConnell...
Sen. McCONNELL: They'll wave the white flag in the war on terror. And you know, General Abizaid had it right, Russ, if I could just elaborate one more moment.
Sen. McCONNELL: General Abizaid had it correct. If we cut and run in Iraq, they'll follow us here. And we need to remind the American people that the terrorists were at war with us before 9/11. They attacked the World Trade Center, they blew up our Embassies in--in East Africa, they knocked a big hole out of the USS Cole. It's only been since we went to war with them after 9/11 that we haven't been attacked here at home.
MITCHELL: Senator McCONNELL, let me ask you this. Howard Dean just said the Democrats have, in fact, offered a plan to fight the war on terror. Do you agree with that?
Sen. McCONNELL: I haven't seen it. Their plan is to leave. They're having a big debate among themselves, sort of the McGovern wing, represented by Howard Dean and his group, that beat Joe Lieberman in the primary up in Connecticut, and the more reasonable people who understand that if you cut and run in Iraq, the terrorists will soon be back here, like they were on 9/11.
MITCHELL: Let me go back to those poll numbers there. A lot of Americans unhappy with the way things are going with the war on terror and the war in Iraq. How do you keep Republicans, unhappy with the Bush administration on these matters, in the fold?
Sen. McCONNELL: Actually, I've been out around the country over the last month and I'm very optimistic that we're going to do well in the Senate, hold the Senate in our fall elections. And what Howard Dean didn't mention to you is how many Democrats are in trouble. The Democratic incumbent in the state of Washington is in a tight, hotly-contested race. The Democratic open seat in Minnesota is a tight race. We have a chance, an excellent chance, in Maryland, another Democratic open seat, not to mention New Jersey and maybe even Nebraska. So we're not only going to protect our incumbents, we're going to win a lot of seats, potentially, that the Democrats currently have. So it's very, very competitive out there.
MITCHELL: Well, what do you think Republican candidates should focus on this election?
Sen. McCONNELL: Look, these are local races. There is no national race this year. They're local races in each state between a Republican and a Democrat. And I think it's important in each of those races for our candidates to remind the voters in those states what Democrats do when they're in power. What they'll do is cut and run in Iraq, they'll raise our taxes, we know that, and they'll try to impeach the president. That's their agenda. They won't tell the voters that before the election, so we need to make sure the voters understand that so that they have a clear understanding of what the choice is this fall in these Senate and House elections.
MITCHELL: Howard Dean brought up Secretary Rumsfeld's comments this week, and there are members of your own party who called them "over the top" and "unhelpful." What did you think about them?
Sen. McCONNELL: I thought his speech was superb. I think Secretary Rumsfeld's done an excellent job. He'll be remembered as one of the great secretaries of defense. We've liberated Afghanistan and Iraq. By staying on offense, we've protected America here at home. Look, it's a--it's a tough slog, you know. Has everything gone perfectly in Iraq? No. But did everything go perfectly in any war? Of course not.
But the main thing to remember is that we went on offense after 9/11 in order to protect Americans here at home. That policy has been a 100 percent success.
MITCHELL: You also heard Howard Dean say the national security issue is not going to work for you this time. Why do you think it will?
Sen. McCONNELL: I think national security is the central issue of our time. And as the president pointed out this week, this battle against Islamic fundamentalists is the central issue of the 21st century. How we deal with that will depend upon whether we can protect our way of life here at home. So far, since 9/11--and we'll be commemorating the fifth anniversary here very shortly--America has been secure here at home as a result of our policies of being on offense, as well as strengthening our defense here at home.
MITCHELL: Going back to an issue we just talked about. The Republican--members of the Republican Party, in the--in the past, have said things like those who question the administration's Iraq policy are unpatriotic. Yet again, the polls show that many Americans are unhappy with the way the war is going. In--in your mind, Senator, are all these people who are opposed to the way the administration is handling the policy unpatriotic?
Sen. McCONNELL: I notice you didn't attach a name to that. I'm unaware of any Republican who's said critics of the war are unpatriotic. They have every right to criticize the war. What we're saying is not that they're unpatriotic, but that they are wrong. And it's demonstrable that we haven't been attacked again here in the last five years. I hope the American people don't believe that's an accident, some quirk--some quirk of fate. It's been because we've been on offense, going after the terrorists where they are, and fighting in places like Baghdad so we don't have them in places like Washington and New York.
MITCHELL: Do you think your party has made any mistakes since 2004 when it comes to reaching out to voters?
Sen. McCONNELL: Look, I think the Democrats will point out what they think the mistakes are. What we're going to do is point out what we think we've done correctly. The economy's in good shape, the unemployment in America is lower now than it was a decade of the '60s, the decade of the '70s, the decade of the '80s, the decade of the '90s. We've created 5.7 million new jobs in the last three years. That's more than Japan and all the European Union combined. Look, this administration's been extremely successful, and we're going to have to remind people in this fall election of what we've done and what they would do if they were in the majority.
MITCHELL: You of course are the Senate Majority Whip, and when Congress reconvenes in a few days you'll have only a few real legislative weeks to get things done. A lot of things still on the table. In your mind, what's the first thing you have to do when you get back to work?
Sen. McCONNELL: Well, we're going to deal with national security. We have to deal with the terrorism surveillance issue, to deal with the Supreme Court decision related to the treatment of detainees. We have to pass the Department of Defense appropriations bill and the Homeland Security bill. So we'll be dealing with national security throughout September. And then, of course, we'll be back in later in the year to finish up our business for this year.
MITCHELL: Do you think minimum wage will come up again?
Sen. McCONNELL: Well, the Democrats had a chance to increase the minimum wage just a month ago. Every Republican, I think maybe with one exception, voted for a package that would have included the Kennedy minimum wage increase. They wouldn't take yes for an answer. So I don't know whether that vote'll come up again or not. It quite possibly could.
MITCHELL: Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania says he will bring up the issue of embryonic stem cell research again. Is this an issue, senator, you think will come before the Senate this time around?
Sen. McCONNELL: I'm sure it'll come up again in the future. I don't think it'll come up in September. We're going to deal primarily with national security issues in September.
MITCHELL: I see, though, this week the first thing on the agenda in Congress is a horse-slaughtering bill. Some people look at that and they say, you know, `What's going on? Why not get down to the real nitty-gritty right away?'
Sen. McCONNELL: Well, the Senate agenda does not include that. The Senate agenda is going to be entirely about national security.
MITCHELL: Is immigration reform too divisive for the party right now?
Sen. McCONNELL: I would prefer to do a comprehensive bill and I would prefer to do it soon. But it's a very complicated bill. What we are doing in the meantime, whether or not we pass the comprehensive immigration reform bill, is we are ramping up border security through the appropriations process. Fences are being built. Border security guards, additional ones, in significant numbers are being hired. The National Guard is down there as a backup. There's some evidence that it's having an impact on the influx of illegals across the border and we're going to try to get that job done regardless of whether we're able to achieve a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
MITCHELL: Senator Mitch McConnell, thank you so much for joining us. Really appreciate it.
Sen. McCONNELL: Thank you, Russ.
MITCHELL: You take care, sir.
We're coming back with our roundtable discussion. Don't go away.