Federal News Service
HEADLINE: PRESS STAKEOUT FOLLOWING SENATE POLICY LUNCHEONS WITH: SENATE MAJORITY LEADER BILL FRIST (R-TN); SENATOR ARLEN SPECTER (R-PA); AND SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY)
LOCATION: THE OHIO CLOCK CORRIDOR, THE CAPITOL, WASHINGTON, D.C.
SEN. FRIST: Good afternoon. What we'd like to do is concentrate the first few minutes-then we'll be happy to take questions afterwards-on an issue that is important to every single American today, and that is response to the economy; the economic growth we are all experiencing today absolutely must translate into jobs, into job creation.
After the assaults on our economy, with over $7 trillion lost in personal wealth, of 9/11, of the recession, of the Internet burst of the bubble, we're in a recovery now where we have the economy growing faster than at any time in the last 20 years. Yet we all know that job recovery has not yet kicked in.
Our job, our responsibility here in Washington, in this great building, the U.S. Capitol, is to establish an environment to facilitate that job creation. In the first part of this 108th session, in addition to the jobs and growth package and the tax relief package, we passed a Workforce Development Act, we passed a small business authorization, all of which hits right at the heart, right at the soul of job and job creation.
In the second half of the 108th session, we will begin very quickly with a number of issues that once again will contribute to the creation of jobs and help us realize an increased number of people employed, consistent with the growth in the economy that we now have. Two of those issues will be the highway bill-and the highway bill is an issue that I hope that we will be able to come to in the early part of next week. And soon after that, we will address an issue that does affect every single American, that is class action.
With that, I'll turn to my colleagues and we'll comment on those two issues as they relate to jobs, and then be happy to answer any questions.
SEN. SPECTER: The highway bill is designed to spur economic growth in a number of directions. The highways facilitate travel, help people get from their homes to their jobs; the mass transit is an integral part, and it is a capital investment in the future.
The Senate and the House budgets have provided for a very substantial increase in highway funding and also mass transit funding, and it will be an enormous capital investment. And I can give you a few examples.
When the highway construction was completed on the intersection in suburban Philadelphia of the Schuylkill Expressway and Route 202 South, which goes to heavily populated suburban areas, people were able to be on the move, truckers were able to deliver their goods. We have the Schuylkill Expressway, which is designed to go from the center city, Philadelphia, to Reading, which will take a tremendous amount of traffic off of the expressway there, which has become a gigantic parking lot, and will move people from areas where there are no jobs to areas where employers need people. We have a new line which is going from Greensburg through Pittsburgh to the Pittsburgh International Airport, which will have economic development. There is a rail line planned from Scranton to New York City, all of which will spur economic growth. And then the highway bill in and of itself will provide a tremendous number of new jobs to fulfill that capital investment.
And then there's the issue of safety. There are many bridges, there are many roads urgently in need of repair, so that the highway bill is a win-win-win. It provides a capital investment for the future, it provides a great number of job opportunities on construction, and it provides safety, which is very fundamental. So we're looking forward to a very important bill coming to the floor and being enacted.
SEN. MCCONNELL: As the leader indicated, another example of legislation that will promote job growth is the Class Action Reform bill. A member of my staff recently brought in a check for 35 cents that she had gotten. She didn't know she was part of a class in a class action. Of course, it costs 37 cents to mail it. So she got a check for 35 cents on some class action case.
A lot of these class action lawsuits benefit primarily the lawyers who are handling them. And this class action reform that we are advocating would not eliminate class action lawsuits, but would bring most of them into federal court, where they could be more sensibly handled. And we think that that would in itself begin to diminish what is going on now in America, which is voracious plaintiffs/lawyers looking for corporations that have pretty good looking balance sheets to strip those profits away, enrich themselves, and send minuscule amounts of money to enormous numbers of people.
In fact, this is one of the greatest abuses of the legal system in America today.
Finally, we believe that there are enough Democrats to allow us to get cloture on this measure. We got to 59 last year, you may recall. All indications are that there are three additional Democrats who would allow us to get to completion on this class action reform bill that we think will certainly move America in the right direction.
Q Senator Frist?
SEN. FRIST: Any questions?
Q Senator, is it still your intention to start the highway bill on February 2nd and go for two weeks, and then when you come back from President's Day to do class action?
SEN. FRIST: We will finish, depending on the weather, either today or tomorrow the pension legislation. And following that, the next major bill up-we will do some nominations tomorrow-will be the highway bill. I expect to go to the highway bill next week. How long we will be on that bill is unclear at this juncture because several of the committees, namely the Finance Committee, will not have their markup of the legislation until Monday, and the Banking Committee until Tuesday. So I don't know how long we will be on that bill.
Once we complete the highway bill, I would like to go to class action. There may be other intervening bills or a number of issues that are being brought forward. This being the real first complete week back, a lot of the committees are now just generating their proposal as to scheduling, but both of those will be on the agenda over the next six weeks.
Q Senator --
SEN. FRIST: Let me go back for this question.
Q The House is only going to be in 94 days this year, and -- (inaudible). And I was just wondering what's your explanation, since the Senate hasn't done its job, what's your sense of, both, you know, where that stands and how much can be accomplished in an election year?
SEN. FRIST: Both for the House and the United States Senate, this will be a short year, as is the custom, as history pretty much demonstrates in a presidential election year. In terms of numbers of days, I don't know exactly how many legislative days we will be in, but say 120 legislative days. I have not talked to the speaker or the majority leader in the House to know exactly what their legislative schedule is.
It is clear what our job is. If we look to the first session, we passed major-I would say monumental legislation when you look at the jobs and growth package with the tax cuts, with the Medicare Prescription Drug Bill, with the supplemental bills, the support of the war. Pretty major legislation, which shows that we are acting, acting with solutions, that this Congress is making real progress.
The agenda that we've laid out is, as I mentioned-highways, it looks like that we will be going before the House of Representatives-although again, I'm not sure exactly what their schedule is-on this very major bill that will affect every community; the class action, which we mentioned; there are a whole range of issues. So I suspect that we will be working hand in hand with the House of Representatives, not exactly on the same schedule, as we go forward to accomplish the nation's business.
It will be a shorter year. It means we need to be very organized. It means when we go to the floor, we have to work very efficiently. It means that we can't tolerate unnecessary obstruction of legislation, that we really do need to engage in debate and amendment and passage or rejection of the bills that are brought to the floor.
Q Senator Frist?
Q (Off mike) -- four priorities the president laid out in the State of the Union, the space programming, tax cuts permanent, the energy bill and the immigration package. Do you expect any one of those to be approved by both houses this year, given that this is an election year and -- (off mike)?
SEN. FRIST: I think that all of the four issues that you mentioned-in fact, I can promise that all four of the issues that you mentioned will be addressed by this Senate, maybe not all on the floor of the United States Senate, but in committee, with hearings.
I think immigration is a good issue. The immigration issue is an important issue. People are very divided on that issue, both within parties and across party lines in the House and Senate. It's going to take a series of hearings. It's going to be considered by a range of committees. And so it will be an issue that is addressed and debated. Will we actually legislate on that? It's too early to tell. It's too premature to tell. But all four of those issues will be addressed.
Q A lot of fiscal conservatives in your party are concerned about the deficit. And given the CBO numbers that came out yesterday, I'd just like your reaction to that; and also in the context of making the tax cuts permanent.
SEN. FRIST: It's not just fiscal conservatives that are concerned about the deficit. We're all concerned about the deficit. The deficit is too high for any of us. And I speak, I think, for Democrats and Republicans. It is clear why we have this deficit, if we look back over the last three years: again, the recession, the effects of 9/11, the Enron scandals, the burst of the Internet bubble, the recovery-the loss, as I mentioned, of $7 trillion of personal wealth. And we're on that way to recovery. Now is the time to focus on the spending side of the equation. We have the pie getting bigger through the policy, the jobs-and-growth package that was put on the table by the president and passed by us. That pie is getting bigger. The economy is growing. The revenues are increasing at every level, the federal, state and local level.
But that is not going to reverse the deficit. The thing that will reverse the deficit is to focus on the spending side of the equation. Keep growing the economy. How do we keep growing the economy? I would argue to make those tax cuts permanent.
The tax cuts which will come forward this year, or expire this year, that likely will be addressed-or I would think they'd be addressed-are issues like the child tax credit, the AMT "hold harmless," the 10 percent tax bracket, all are issues that we will be addressing this year.
Q Given the CBO numbers, Senator, what do you think the chances are of passing a $31 billion energy package?
SEN. FRIST: The energy package we have not yet mentioned. It is discussed both in our caucus just a few minutes ago and every day by leadership. It is inexcusable that this country does not have a comprehensive energy package that looks at production, that looks at our increasing dependence, which I don't think anybody wants, on foreign sources of oil, and renewable resources and conservation and more efficient energy.
We worked it very hard, we've come very close, but we've been unsuccessful to date. We'll continue to work in that regard. Is it going to cost $31 billion to accomplish that? I think the American people and members of the United States Congress said that that is too much. That's what we know so far. How much will be necessary? I don't know. We'll debate it. We're talking about it every day in our caucus.
SEN. FRIST: We'll take three more questions. Yeah?
Q David Kay over the weekend said that he doubted that there were stockpiles of weapons in Iraq before the U.S. invaded and he doesn't think that they will be found now. Do you share that assessment? And also, do you think an inquiry into what happened with intelligence should include how intelligence was handled by the White House?
SEN. FRIST: First of all, I have tremendous respect for David Kay and I think he's done an outstanding job, a great public servant. He has committed part of his life and time and efforts in serving all of us and I do want to thank him for that.
I want to get more information from Mr. Kay and his observations. I have not had the opportunity to talk to him since he's been there; I have before. But I have tremendous respect.
With regard to the bigger picture, let me just make one quick statement. There's no question to me that our efforts have made this world a safer place; it made United States a safer place. The premise of weapons of mass destruction we can debate, we should debate; we need to go back. And question is, as Mr. Kay has suggested, was it a failing or inadequacies or lack of investment on intelligence? We need to be able to answer that question to prevent it in the future. No question about it.
But when you have what's happened in Tennessee today, where an aircraft landed at Knoxville, Tennessee, just this morning, and on that aircraft there are materials being unloaded right now, as we speak, that would go to Oak Ridge National Lab, which is one of the great nuclear labs in this country.
And you look where that airplane came from, and it came from Libya. And you look just at just a month before that, where Qadhafi basically said-and you can argue what the reasons are, but I think it's pretty clear to the American people that Qadhafi got the message from the United States' action that if you're going to be developing weapons of mass destruction, which he admits to and we have evidence of, and if your intentions are to terrorize the world, you, like Qadhafi, is no longer safe without a change in behavior.
And the fact that they're off-loading now some elements of constructing bombs in Tennessee to go to our national lab that a few weeks ago was in Libya, with the intentions to be used for whatever purpose-the world is a safer, safer place.
Q Senators Rockefeller and Levin were just out here, Senators, and they claimed-they say that basically we're not responding to Mr. Kay. And they say that intelligence was not good and that the administration, especially Vice President Cheney, exaggerated, based on what he knew, and there ought to be an investigation into that. Should there be?
SEN. FRIST: Yeah, we'll-well, we'll let everybody comment. I didn't hear what Senator Rockefeller and Leahy (sic) said. I hope there wasn't a real partisan overlay to it in this election year.
I think what our responsibility is, as senators, is to make sure that the very best intelligence-the very best intelligence-is made available to people who are making the decisions. And if there is a disconnect, including to our commander in chief-if there's a disconnect, we, as senators; we, as public servants; we, as the legislative branch, need to act to make sure that there is good, fair, accurate information made available to those making decisions.
You want to comment on the intelligence --
SEN. SPECTER: (Off mike.)
SEN. FRIST: Yup.
SEN. SPECTER: Senator Rockefeller is the vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, and when he calls for an investigation, he's the man to do the investigating.
I served as chairman of the Intelligence Committee in the 104th Congress, and there's no doubt that there has been a failure of intelligence. And that is a matter which ought to be inquired into by the Intelligence Committee.
With respect to Vice President Cheney, he has addressed the subject, and I'm sure he will address it further.
But the Intelligence Committee is the agency to answer the questions which Senator Rockefeller himself is posing.
SEN. FRIST: Okay. Thank you all. We'll see you.
Q Thanks, Senator.