NEWS CONFERENCE WITH SENATE DEMOCRATIC LEADERS
TOPIC: ETHICS REFORM
PARTICIPANTS INCLUDE: SENATOR HARRY REID (D-NV), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER; SENATOR RUSS FEINGOLD (D-WI); SENATOR CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D-MO); SENATOR BARACK OBAMA (D-IL); SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT); SENATOR JON TESTER (D-MT)
SEN. FEINGOLD: Good afternoon. I'm very pleased to be here with Senator Obama and many of the new members to talk about the lobbying and ethics disclosure efforts.
And I want to kick it off by introducing the person who's responsible for it being the first thing that the Senate is going to take up. I want to thank Senator Reid not only for that decision but for the way he's bringing it up, and also for the personal effort he has made since the election in terms of meetings with me, Senator Obama, with the freshmen. He has invested a great deal of his personal time into making this a success.
Majority Leader Reid.
SEN. REID: Russ, thank you very much.
Senator Feingold, from the day he came to the Senate, has been concerned about gifts, lobbying, what we do with earmarks. He has a long, very positive record in this regard.
Barack, we're grateful to you for your taking this as one of the things you believe in so strongly.
I'm here to show that the Democratic Caucus commitment to giving America a government as good and honest as the people it serves really does exist.
As we all know now, I said before the election, I said after the election, I say today, the first matter that we are taking up is S-1. It contains very significant reforms. It bans virtually all gifts from lobbyists and prohibits travel paid for by lobbyists; it slows a revolving door; requires a disclosure of earmarks; expands the lobbying disclosure requirements; makes the K Street Project something that will never happen again. But S-1 is just a start.
We're going to approve this bill. I admire the dedication of Senators Feingold and Obama. I appreciate their working in a positive fashion with our nine new Democrats. I'm going to work with Senators Feingold and Obama on a continuing basis to include as many of their ideas as possible, including expanding the gift ban; to prohibit giving by companies that hire lobbyists; expanding the travel ban to prohibit travel by companies that hire lobbyists; prohibit dead of night changes to conference reports; strengthen the definition of earmarks; and strengthen criminal and corruption laws.
At the end of the day, the Senate will pass the most sweeping reforms since Watergate. I am working now on a substitute. That substitute is going to include many of the things that Senators Feingold and Obama feel is important. And one thing that Russ mentioned and I am going to underline and underscore -- we're going to the floor with S-1. It's open to amendment. We're going to talk about it this afternoon. We have the consent of the minority to go to it in the morning, and we're going to work. I've announced we're going to have votes this Friday. We're going to do our very best to finish this bill next week. I'm very, very -- I feel good about this. I think there's so much more we can do to bring a better tone to Washington. And I think that letting everyone know that whatever they want to do -- I've told every individual freshman, if there is an amendment they want to offer, offer it, and we'll debate it and move on. Hopefully I can support Senators Obama and Feingold and the freshmen on things they feel is important to do.
Thank you, Russ.
SEN. FEINGOLD: Mr. Leader, thank you.
Well, Mr. Leader, I feel good about this, too. And to hear a majority leader say that we're going to go out to the floor and we're going to have open amending, it's just a breath of fresh air after many years of difficulty in this regard.
You know, this issue is just as typical of issues of campaign finance reform or gift bans or whatever it is -- it usually takes a scandal to get real action. And what was kind of sad last year is we had a hell of a scandal, but we still weren't able to pass a bill that did the job. It wasn't sufficient, and it was -- even though many of us were very involved in it -- Senator Obama and I, Senator McCain -- in the end, we couldn't even vote for it. Eight of us didn't even vote for it, even though it did include some valuable changes.
So we can see here Senator Reid is going to already begin to improve the bill from last year just in his substitute. And then by opening the process to allow us to improve it even more, I think we may finally have the kind of reform that is an appropriate response not only to the Abramoff scandal but to the clear message from November 7th from the American people, which is that they find this disgusting, it destroys their faith in everything else we want to do.
And I've heard these wonderful new members talk about every issue from health care to the environment to controlling crime. None of this stuff makes people feel serious about this unless the American people believe that we're not somehow corrupting the process here.
So I'm just going to mention one or two other things, because there are so many wonderful senators who want to speak. But I just want to reiterate what Senator Reid has said. A serious gift ban -- I was not able to get my amendment though last time on the gift ban. Senator Reid is talking about doing that.
Real reform on the revolving door.
A serious provision on corporate jets we hope to see.
Also, a travel provision, similar to what the House just put through in its provisions as well. These are some of the major reforms.
And later today Senator Obama and I will introduce together our vision of what we hope this can all look like in the end. And I believe that Senator Reid has set up a process that can make that happen. So thank you again.
And I'd like to turn to Senator Obama, who has been working on this issue for many years but can't seem to get any attention from the press in general. (Laughter.) So in order to make that possible -- truly it has been a delight to work with Barack from the beginning. He jumped on this issue right away, and it's just a great pleasure to be working with him on it.
SEN. OBAMA: Thank you.
Well, thank you very much, Senator Feingold.
Let me open up by echoing Russ's statements about Majority Leader Reid. You know, in part, I had the opportunity to work on this issue last year because Senator Reid allowed me to work on it. You know, there were folks obviously ahead of queue, and he gave me free rein to come up with the strongest possible bill.
We fell a little bit short, from my perspective, although I think the bill was an improvement over the status quo. The fact that the first bill that's being called this year addresses these issues and that Majority Leader Reid has created the kind of open process that he's committed to I think is remarkable, and I think will lead to the kind of strong, vigorous action that I think the American people are looking for.
(Interrupted by cell phone ringing.) I'll wait until Lynn's (sp) phone goes off.
Q/STAFF (?): I'm sorry.
SEN. OBAMA: (Off mike) -- from Chicago. (Laughter.) You know, I -- this past election, I think, sent a strong message that the American people want change, but it would be a mistake to conclude that this message was intended just for one party or for one politician. We've got some wonderful freshmen here, many of whom were committed to changing the way business was done in Washington. What they called for was not just a change in who represented their states, but also how the game was played. And this bill, I think, more than any other gives us the opportunity to try to change how that game is played. Americans put their faith in us this time around as Democrats because they want us to restore their faith in government, and that means more than just window dressing.
I was hopeful that the scandals last year would have led to more meaningful ethics reform; they did not. But this year, I think we have the opportunity to seize the moment and make something happen. That's going to mean a full gift and meal bin. It's going to mean no free travel or subsidized travel on private jets, I hope. It's going to mean closing the revolving door that unfortunately makes Capitol Hill service all too often the stepping stone to high-paying lobbying jobs. It means that we're not going to tolerate a House committee chairman shepherding the Medicare prescription drug bill through at the same time as he's negotiating for a job as a lobbyist.
It's also going to mean real enforcement.
And one thing that Russ and I agree on and -- and he didn't have a chance to mention -- is that one of the things that we're hoping to do in our bill is to make sure that the enforcement arm actually works. I think the Senate ethics committee has a better record on this than the House ethics committee over the last several years. But even when the ethics committee is working, it is important for us to send a signal to the American people that this is not just an old boys' network -- that in fact somebody outside of the political process has some ability to measure how we're behaving and serve as a public watchdog.
So Senators Lieberman and Collins last year proposed a alternative to a bill that I had proposed on the Office of Public Integrity. That is included in this bill and I think it's going to be an important measure of whether or not we can move forward effectively.
So again I want to thank Senator Reid. He has been a key partner in this whole process and my belief is that all of us are going to be working together as Democrats -- and hopefully some Republicans -- to make this process work and I want to just commend Senator Russ Feingold because he has been a leader on this issue for many, many years and he doesn't just talk the talk, he also walks the walk. And even when the laws allow it he doesn't -- he doesn't stray from the -- the rectitude that I think has characterized his service in Washington. So Russ?
SEN. FEINGOLD: Thank you very much. Well, now it's just great fun to turn to the people who made Majority Leader Reid possible but also are going to make this reform possible. Every single one of these senators has made this an important part of their campaigning and I'm going to be so excited to see them help us offer or offer some of the key amendments. Let me begin with Senator McCaskill.
SEN. MCCASKILL: First, I want to also thank Leader Reid and Senator Obama and Senator Feingold for a couple of things. First, for making this a priority. For those of us who have been out there working as hard as we know how to get to this place, we know this is a real problem.
The second thing that we want -- I want to thank them for and I know the other freshmen feel the same way -- is the respect and deference they are showing us. I mean, I'm number 97. Do I need to say anything else? The fact that we are here today and that they are talking to us and listening to us about our concerns speaks volumes about the kind of leadership that Harry Reid is going to provide in the Senate and the kind of leadership that Senator Feingold and Obama are showing on this issue.
Sometimes the ethics problem is one that unfortunately is a reality. Frequently it's a perception. I look forward to working with my colleagues on both side of the aisle to make sure we pass a bill that will deal with both -- the reality and the perception -- that people come here and lose sight of their ethical and moral compass. Thank you all very much.
SEN. FEINGOLD: Senator Klobuchar?
SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN): Thank you, Senator Reid, for your leadership on this issue and thank you to Senators Feingold and Obama for your commitment and I'm excited to be here with my fellow freshmen. When I arrived in Washington last week, we came in our family Saturn and it was packed with all of the old dishes I found in the basement including a shower curtain I found from 1980. But we also brought with us a Minnesota moral compass -- this simple idea that the people come first and that the people in the halls of Congress should be on equal footing. And they can't feel that they're on equal footing when we have as we did under past leadership people selling votes for trips to Scotland.
You know, ethics reform used to be the work of political scientists and now thanks to the leadership of Senator Reid, we are taking it out of the classroom and into the hearing rooms. Until we fix the way the Congress does business, we're not going to be able to tackle the challenges that we have with energy independence and affordable health care and giving some relief to the middle class.
What happened in the last election was that people saw this as more than individual scandals. They saw it as how it was going to affect them. They began to understand that when the drug companies are writing the health care laws like Medicare Part D that it's not helping them. And when the oil companies are -- are writing laws and giving themselves big tax breaks that it's not helping them with their gas prices and their way to work. The people of this country saw who was benefiting and who was losing by the way things were being done in Congress.
Last week at the swearing-in, a number of people mentioned to me the senators that had come from Minnesota. One of them was Hubert Humphrey, and he once said, "I have loved my country in a way that some people consider sentimental and out of style. I still do and I remain an optimist with joy, without apology about this country and about the American experiment in democracy."
Well, I remain an optimist. I remain an optimist because the people standing up here -- because the leadership of Senator Reid -- because of the people in Minnesota that spoke out and said they wanted to change the way Washington was doing business. That's why this year we're going to pass real ethics reform. Thank you.
SEN. FEINGOLD: Senator Tester?
SEN. TESTER: Well, first of all it's good to be here and I do want to -- you know, you're going to hear the same things over and over again potentially. But it's very important that you all know that Senator Reid here has allowed ethics to be taken up early in this 110th Congress. It's important that it is and I applaud you for that, Senator Reid, to set the right tone for the work that's to be done here over the next couple of years. And I also want to thank Senator Feingold, Senator Obama for their leadership too.
I'll just make it very quick. You know, it's unfortunate that we have to be talking about ethics at this point in time. But ethics is a baseline foundational issue that we need to take into consideration at every level of government. And when it isn't taken into consideration and ethics violations occur, it really does put a bad light on all people in public service and I think with -- with the bill that Senator Reid talked about and Senator Feingold and Senator Obama, we have an opportunity to step up to the plate and restore the people's faith back into government. Thank you very much.
SEN. FEINGOLD: Thanks, John.
SEN. SANDERS: Thank you, Russ, and I'm very pleased to be here and to concur with the views of Senator Reid, Senator Feingold, Senator Obama, and all of my colleagues. What I want to do just very briefly is put this issue in a broad context. This is not just an abstract concept of something that's important for America. The middle class in America today is shrinking. Poverty is increasing. The gap between the rich and the poor is growing wider, and the wealthiest people in America have never had it so good since the 1920s. Our health care system is disintegrating and every sane person is worried about global warming and the implications of that.
The truth of the matter is that for a number of years Congress, certainly the White House, have not addressed these issues, and one of the reasons for their failure to address these issues is that power in this institution, in Washington, D.C., to a significant degree, rests with lobbyists who represent the interests of wealthy and powerful corporate interests. And if we are going to do our Constitutional job and represent ordinary Americans among many, many other things, we need ethics reform. We also need campaign finance reform. We need media reform. We need a strong grass roots movement in America to combat the power of big money. We need a lot of things but I want to congratulate Senator Reid, Senator Obama, Senator Feingold for leading us into this very important area and telling lobbyists that they can no longer run roughshod over the United States Congress. Thank you.
SEN. FEINGOLD: Well said. Senator Cardin?
SEN. BENJAMIN CARDIN (D-MD): Senator Feingold, thank you very much. Let me just take you back to a week after the elections when the new senators were here -- senators-elect were here and we had a chance to meet with Senator Reid. And from the beginning he told us that the first bill that we would be considering in January was going to be ethics reform -- that he was committed to make sure that we pass a strong ethics reform bill and that he wanted us to support his efforts to stay here in January to get the work of the United States Senate done.
I tell you, that was the type of leadership that the new members of the United States Senate respected and wanted. I want to thank Senator Feingold and Senator Obama for getting us up to speed on the ethics issues. During the recess, we had a chance to look over the different bills including S.1 and the changes to S.1 and I want you to know I agree completely with Senator Reid and that is Senator -- that Senate One, with the type of strengthening provisions that Senator Reid is talking about, will be the most significant reform in ethics since Watergate here in the Congress of the United States, exactly what we need.
I had the opportunity of serving on the House ethics committee for over six years and I say that with Senator Reid here so he knows I've already served on the ethics committee -- I shouldn't be chosen again to have to do that. (Laughter). I can tell you, though, I served during the House bank scandal. I served during Speaker Gingrich's investigation. And I can tell you we needed to change our ethics rules and we still need to do that. We need to close the loopholes in the gift ban and this legislation will do that. We need to make the process here more transparent, particularly as it relates to earmarks. This legislation will do that. We need to strengthen the way that we enforce our ethics rules. This legislation will do that.
I'm just so proud that we will be considering this bill this week and next week and we will be passing significant ethics reform so that the people's business, in fact, can be done in the United States Senate.
SEN. FEINGOLD: Senator Whitehouse?
SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D-RI): Well, it is thrilling to be here, as you can imagine, and it gives me great satisfaction that this is the first significant order of business that we're undertaking as a new Senate.
I want to express my appreciation to Senator Feingold and to Senator Obama for their passionate determination on this issue, and I want to express my very deep appreciation to Majority Leader Reid, our leader, for using the power that he has and the responsibility that he bears in that position to place this issue front and center in his administration. He has heard clearly from all of us and from across the country how deep the yearning is for Americans to be able to look at Congress and say there is, in fact, a new way of doing business, and I want to support Senator Reid and Senator Obama and Senator Feingold in their efforts in every way. I heard it loud and clear in Rhode Island as everybody else did and thank you, sir.
SEN. FEINGOLD: Now Senator Casey.
SEN. BOB CASEY (D-PA): Thank you very much. I'm honored to be here as well with my freshmen colleagues and I want to first of all salute and commend the great leadership that Senator Reid has demonstrated here today -- one of the first actions as the majority leader to lead this Senate in the right direction.
And I also want to commend the work of Senators Feingold and Obama to focus the attention not just of the Senate, but of the American people on a critical issue facing all of America.
When people look at Washington and they see what happens here, often I think in the last couple of years there's been a real erosion in public trust. And one way -- one way to combat that and to fight against it is to pass real ethics reform. And I think that's going to happen this year at long last.
And it's -- that old adage, I think, comes to mind that sunlight is the best disinfectant. And I heard about this issue all over Pennsylvania when I was campaigning. One of the first substantive things that I did as a candidate in terms of putting out a specific idea on ethics was to focus on this issue in a very real way. And there's an inscription on the building that I worked in for 10 years in state government, and I think it applies here. It's inscribed on the finance building in the state capital in Harrisburg. And it says very simply that, "All public service is a trust given in faith and accepted in honor."
For us to give meaning to that inscription, for us to give meaning to our obligation as members of Congress and as senators, I think it's critically important that both parties work together on this. And I'm heartened by the fact that Majority Leader Reid and Senators Feingold and Obama and my colleagues in the freshman class have come together to focus the attention of the American people on this critical issue. Thank you.
SEN. FEINGOLD: How nice it is that it takes this long to get to the last senator -- (laughter) -- and that they're all amazingly concise. Thank you, everybody.
Senator Brown, thank you.
SEN. BROWN: For 14 years I've sat on the Energy and Commerce Committee in the House. In the last half decade, the members of that committee have watched the drug companies write the new Medicare law, have watched amendment after amendment that would have benefited seniors, benefited consumers, defeated by drug company lobbyists and their allies on the committee.
We've watched an energy bill written by the oil industry and the gas industry and other oil producers and energy producers. We've sat on the House floor and watched a Medicare law take three hours to pass in the middle of the night, after most reporters had gone home and after people had turned off their television sets. We saw the Central American Free Trade Agreement, written by corporate lobbyists, pushed through the House again in the middle of the night, passing by one vote, as reporters in most -- most reporters had gone home and people had quit watching on C-SPAN.
Those days are behind us. Those days are behind us because of the leadership of Majority Leader Reid and Senators Feingold and Senator -- Senators Feingold and Obama, and because of this freshman class and because so many of us are committed to changing the way this country -- the way this government runs.
People in this election in my state, and I think across the country, felt that their government has betrayed them in the last few years, that government is rarely on their side. And I think this ethics reform package will again put government on the side of the public, on the side of the middle class, on the side of people in this country that want -- all they want is real opportunity. Thank you.
SEN. FEINGOLD: Thank you, Senator Brown. Thank you all.
Senator Webb wanted to be here, is unable to be here, but is supportive of our efforts as well. I'd be happy to open to questions.
Q Senator Feingold, there's been a number of critics of this bill that are looking at provisions related to grassroots groups that -- it would require them to report communications made to the public private among members. Is this one of the portions of the bill you'd like to see amended?
SEN. FEINGOLD: I would like to see the original S.1 strengthened in this regard, yes.
Q So you think that should stay in there where grassroots group, they report to the public --
SEN. FEINGOLD: I do. I do.
Q Senator Obama, could I just ask you to follow up the theme you were just talking about in the hallway --
SEN. OBAMA: Sure.
Q -- on the issue of Iraq. Do you think, first of all --
SEN. OBAMA: You know what -- I'm sorry, Dana (sp). Let's get the ethics questions out and then I'll be happy to stick around after for you. Go ahead.
Q Can you speak to the political reality of neocons, independents -- (off mike)?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, this is something that I presented last year. You know, there's some institutional resistance. And it's understandable, because I think that a lot of members are concerned about the potential use of any independent commission as a political club to beat them over the head.
On the other hand, what I've seen from the experiences of states like Kentucky that have put an independent commission like this together is that it actually ends up restoring confidence on the part of voters. It ends up creating a system in which once a matter is disposed of, that not only the public, but also the press have confidence that it was disposed of properly and so creates some closure for these matters. And, you know -- so I think it's very important that whatever we do here creates a sense in the public that laws will be enforced and they will be applied equally to members of Congress.
Now what we've done is to adopt the Lieberman-Collins version of this independent counsel, or independent commission, in this -- in our version of the bill. And we will present it and our hope is that we can get it passed.
Q Last year the proposal for an independent office was defeated on the floor in the Senate.
SEN. OBAMA: Yeah.
Q What's changed?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, we've got a whole bunch of -- you're looking at them. We've got a whole bunch of freshmen. And I also think that the election changed the dynamic. I think voters sent a clear message that we are uncomfortable with how business is done in Washington right now. And if you look at the exit polls, across the board when you asked people what was one of their number one priorities, they would say, "We are concerned that Washington is not working on our behalf. It's working behalf of the lobbyists."
I think every single one of these freshmen had experiences on the campaign trail, because I know -- I was campaigning with many of them. And you'd listen to folks and they would say, "Who's looking out for us?" And this is an important step. It's not the only step, but it's an important step along this process.
One thing that I'll just add. Russ and I both, I think, are very committed to campaign finance reform as well. We did not include this in this provision, because we don't want to weight this thing down so heavily that we can't get anything passed right now.
I'm confident that working together, and there are going to be others who are interested -- I know Dick Durbin is preparing a bill on public financing -- that we will see campaign finance bills present and go through the regular order during the course of this session. I think Harry Reid is interested in some of those provisions as well. But right now we're focusing just on the ethics provisions.
Q Did you -- the freshmen -- did any of you in your campaigns use corporate jets -- maybe just raise a hand -- borrow planes? None of you did? So any flying you did was on charters or campaigns paid for?
SEN. CASEY: Yes. (Laughter.)
SEN. FEINGOLD: Any other questions?
Q So let me get this straight: you're not proposing to ban the use of private jets during campaigning?
SEN. OBAMA: No, we are. We are.
Q Oh, you are?
SEN. OBAMA: Oh, yeah. That's a provision.
SEN. FEINGOLD: That's a provision in our bill.
SEN. OBAMA: In our bill.
Q Do you expect that to be supported by Senator Reid?
SEN. FEINGOLD: We are hopeful that either it's included in something Senator Reid brings to us or will offer in amendment. And we're hopeful that the majority of the Senate will support it. In fact, I have a very good feeling about that.
Q Why do you think that this corporate jet is such a sensitive issue, since there are campaign funds that people gathered?
SEN. FEINGOLD: When our people in a state like my state realize how difficult it is to do air travel, to be able to get around this country, and find out that members of Congress can use a corporate jet and have that kind of convenience that the average person can't have, it is one of those things that really sticks in the craw and makes people feel that somehow we place ourselves above them.
It also has a corrupting influence. When a lobbyist is in that plane with you, he or she has all kinds of time to lobby you, bend your ear, schmooze you -- whatever you want to call it. It's something that the average citizen doesn't have. So to me, it's both substantive and symbolic and is a very important reform.
Q But you have campaign -- (cross talk) -- paid for.
SEN. OBAMA: Well -- yeah. I mean, I'm somebody who transitioned from having used them and applied last year my own internal policy not to use them -- not to take the special rate in using corporate jets.
Look, I think Russ' points were important, but I think there's one more pretty clear point. And that is, there are rules governing how much corporations can give to candidates. And, you know, if you're paying for a full-class airfare, but in fact, the cost of the trip is $10,000, that's a contribution. I mean, you are getting a large benefit from corporations. It is a huge loophole in existing laws.
And really what we're trying to do here is close a loophole. Now, why do you think there's resistance? Well, because corporate jets are nice. (Laughter.) You know, they're convenient. They're waiting for you. You don't have to take your shoes off. And you know, they -- and in fairness, look -- in fairness for folks who are traveling a lot or live in remote areas or have to travel in areas of the state that are difficult to get to or have irregular commercial flight schedules, there may be legitimate reasons for them to be concerned.
But your point, Lynn (sp), I think is right -- and this is what I've done in my own office -- is that when there is not a commercial flight that's easily accessible, or my schedule is such where it's necessary for me to charter a private jet, I do so. I just pay for it out of my campaign funds. And campaign funds, you know, can pay for this.
Q But why are your brothers and sisters in the Senate -- since all of them have campaign funds -- why do you think it's just so hard to get that next stage on this one issue? Just to pay for it.
SEN. OBAMA: I don't know.
SEN. FEINGOLD: I think we actually need a vote on it.
SEN. OBAMA: I think --
SEN. FEINGOLD: I think that's as hard as it's going to be. And I think if we get a vote --
SEN. OBAMA: I think we'll get it passed. Anything else?
SEN. OBAMA: All right. Are we done with the ethics?
SEN. FEINGOLD: Thanks so much.
Q Senator, on Iraq.
SEN. OBAMA: Yeah.
Q Do you oppose putting more troops in Iraq?
SEN. OBAMA: I do.
Q So given that, do you think it's appropriate to try to find a way to not fund what many Democrats now have said are escalations of a war that even the speaker said Americans voted against?
SEN. OBAMA: You know, I met with the president last week and expressed my clear and unequivocal opposition to an escalation of troop levels in Iraq. I don't think that 15,000 or 20,000 more troops is going to make a difference in Iraq and in Baghdad. What will make a difference is political accommodation between the Shi'as, the Sunni and the Kurds.
My office is now investigating what tools are available to us to condition or constrain appropriations. But what I've also said is that I'm not willing to create a situation in which troops who are already in Iraq might be shortchanged in some way because of, you know, restrictions on appropriations.
So it creates a difficult situation for Democrats. My wish would be that the president would actually listen to his generals, listen to the experts, make a determination that this is not the right step to take and come up with a more appropriate strategy. But my intention, at least, is to be as vigorous as possible, through the use of oversight, the hearings that Senator Biden will be organizing this week, the appropriations process, to focus the American people's attention on this and to do whatever we can do to lead to a better set of decisions from the White House constrained by my belief that if I had a son or daughter in Iraq right now I'd want to make sure that they had everything they need to come home safely.
Q Do you any -- (cross talk) -- you can alter the president's policy by saying, as a body, as a new Democratic Congress in power, "Look, Mr. President, we don't think this is a good idea and we're going to use the one power we have, the power of the purse, to make sure you don't do that"?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, what we're investigating is are there ways of sending that message without potentially reducing the resources that are available to the troops that are there to still carry out what remains a very important mission. And I don't think that -- I don't have the answers for that yet. My hope is that over the course of the next several weeks that will be determined.
Q Senator Obama, what are some of the ways that you guys are sort of discussing -- you and your colleagues -- what are --
SEN. OBAMA: Well, I know that there have been some discussions. For example, is there a way of conditioning any supplemental appropriation on not increasing troop levels, for example. It's not clear that that can be done, that you can segment off budgets for the troops that are already there and the mission that's already there from additional troop levels, in part because you've got -- my understanding is if, in fact, there's an escalation it will have more to do with keeping the troops who are already there longer, accelerating rotations that were already going to take place. So whether you can carve out and say, we're going to fund this, but not additional troops, that's not clear. But those are the kinds of questions that I think are being asked right now.
Q What do you want to come out of the hearing -- you're one of the senators on the Foreign Relations Committee. Are you -- (off mike) -- of the points you think you want to make when these hearings --
SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think it will be the same set of questions that the American people have. After having spent $400 billion thus far, after seeing 3,000 of our young men and women die on the battlefields in Iraq with thousands more maimed, and with an apparent lack of commitment on the part of the Iraqi government and the various sectarian factions in Iraq to arrive at a political accommodation, why would we want to compound the mistake that has already been made?
What evidence do we have that additional troops, additional American troops, will lead to the Iraqi government taking greater responsibility in providing security for its people and diminishing the sectarian war there? What specific steps are going to be taken to ensure that the Iraqi government stands up?
You know, why do we think that as a consequence of additional troop levels that that is going to encourage the Iraqi government to take more responsibility, as opposed to give them the impression that there are no consequences for them failing to meet whatever benchmarks have been put forward. So those, I think, are going to be the questions that we have during the course of these hearings.
Thank you everybody.