Press Conference with Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Minority Leader, and Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS)
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SEN. MCCONNELL: Good morning, everyone.
I understand that our colleagues on the other side had a press conference earlier this morning about the veterans bill, and I want to start by clearing up one apparent suggestion by one of them that the president opposes the VA appropriations bill. Of course the opposite is the case. The president will sign the bill.
The issue is the gimmick of linking it to the Labor-Health and Human Services bill, which the president opposes because it's dramatically over his recommended spending level. There's no reason to combine the two bills. In fact, it slows it down by combining the two bills. If we wanted to get the veterans bill signed by Veterans Day, the best way to do it is to send a clean veterans bill that we know the president will sign to him at the earliest possible time. So that would be my preference.
Let me say again, as I've said repeatedly, neither side has totally clean hands on the issue of finishing appropriation bills, but this is, I think, a 20-year late period. We have -- in other words, in over 20 years we haven't failed to send at least one appropriation bill down to the president for signature by this point. And that could be fixed pretty easily by splitting these two bills, sending the VA bill down there, getting a signature on that, and beginning to negotiate on others.
So I think the way this appropriations process has been managed has been -- you've really set a record for ineptitude.
With that, let me turn it over to our ranking member of Appropriations, Senator Cochran.
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Q Senator McConnell, will you use your right under the new Senate rules to essentially cleave the veterans bill off of the Labor- H bill on the floor?
SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, you're right that the rule does allow -- if the parliamentarian rules that something has been -- as I understand it, something's been dropped into a conference report, a point of order could be raised against that. And if the point -- if the parliamentarian indicates a point of order is appropriately raised, it would take 60 votes to overturn that ruling.
So whether that will be used -- and I couldn't tell you today -- but --
Q Why not?
SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, we don't know how the parliamentarian's going to rule. I would be --
Q (Off mike.)
SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I'd be optimistic that he would rule that it doesn't belong there.
Q Well, it's obvious, isn't it?
SEN. MCCONNELL: That would be my hope, but the parliamentarian -- (interrupted by laughter) -- the parliamentarian --
Q If the --
SEN. MCCONNELL: It's obvious to you and it's obvious to me. If it's obvious to the parliamentarian, the point of order would lie.
Q (Off mike) -- argument, if it is obvious to the parliamentarian, what -- will you raise a point of order in order to --
SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I'm not prepared to announce that today, but I think, you know, we're here complaining about the fact that the two have been lumped together. I think that's a reasonable surmise on your part.
Q Senator Durbin said that -- this morning that he didn't think that -- (off mike). Are you confident that they will be -- (off mike) -- somehow?
SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, we'll find out when -- if such a point of order is made and such a vote is held.
Q Are you not prepared to announce that because you're not sure whether or not you have the votes to prevail on that or --
SEN. MCCONNELL: I think I've consistently all year not predicted what the vote count was going to be prior to having it. I do think there's substantial objection on our side to lumping the bills together, particularly in this situation. I mean sometimes it makes sense just because you don't have enough floor time and all the rest, but here, as Senator Cochran pointed out, this veterans bill has been ready for some time. We know the president will sign it. You know why are we playing games with it? Just send it down there and get it signed.
So I think in this particular instance, there is, you know, widespread feeling on our side that the two should not have been lumped together.
Q The president did -- when he said he would sign the veterans with the extra money in it, he -- they also said that they wanted that extra money taken out of all the other domestic bills. So in fact, you know, if they signed this bill, Democrats are concerned, obviously, as you know, that at least that 3.7 billion (dollars) would have to come out of other bills in addition. In an effort to break the ice, would you be willing to ask the administration to forego that, so -- (off mike) -- you know -- you're on Appropriations, and you have a long experience with that -- it's going to have some middle ground here. Would you be willing, as leaders, to urge the administration to forego demanding the 3.7 (billion dollars) come from other programs?
SEN. MCCONNELL: You're asking me to begin the negotiation here today that will occur at some point. And Senator Cochran and I and others will be involved at some point, once the gamesmanship ends, in trying to figure out how to get these bills signed.
I think the president's very serious about the top line, and I don't think he's going -- (chuckles) -- I can't speak for him, but I think he's highly unlikely to budge. He is willing to sign the veterans bill, and I think we ought to get it down to him and get a signature.
Q Leader, Mr. Leader, do you believe the president has the authority to take military action against Iran without congressional approval? And even if he does, would you support legislation that requires him to seek some approval?
SEN. MCCONNELL: One thing I think we ought not to do is announce in advance to the Iranians what our intentions may be. I mean, one of the tools any president has is to not be terribly specific about what we may have in mind in the future.
The president, however, has made it totally clear, I think, that we are trying very hard to implement a regime of multilateral sanctions that actually bite. And there is widespread agreement among the Europeans and ourselves -- and we don't always agree on everything -- that a nuclear Iran is a bad idea. But to just go out of our way to rule out options in advance strikes me as not being a terribly smart thing to do.
Q Even a resolution that simply suggests that the president come to the Congress first?
SEN. MCCONNELL: Why would -- what conceivable purpose would be served, at a time when we're trying to squeeze the Iranians economically, by telling them what we will or won't do in the future, militarily? I can't think of any conceivable advantage that would give our country to do that. In other words, it's a vote we really shouldn't take, in my view.
Q Senators --
SEN. MCCONNELL: Yeah?
Q (Off mike) -- that kind of a vote would equate to revealing your plan?
SEN. MCCONNELL: I don't there's any need to even be voting on the subject of possible military action in Iran. Nobody is suggesting it. I think it's just not a timely subject. We all know that we're trying to squeeze the Iranians diplomatically, the Europeans agree, and the ultimate goal is a non-nuclear Iran. But why would we want to take this pointless vote?
Q A question for both senators --
SEN. MCCONNELL: Yeah.
Q -- back on spending for a second. Do either of you think that a Labor-H bill at the president's number, 3.6 billion (dollars) cut below last year, could make it through the Congress or even the Senate? Or is there going to have to be some kind of negotiation?
SEN. COCHRAN: Well, the Labor-HHS bill, as reported by the committee, is $11.7 billion over the president's budget request.
And I think that's where the big problem comes. The president is interested in trying to keep the level of spending at the budget request level, and so that's the problem. That's the disagreement between the Democrats in Congress and the president.
We can work out those differences as we always do, but there's not any real encouraging sign that there is an effort under way to do that right now. It looks like the Democrats in Congress are trying to provoke a veto and then argue that the president is insensitive to the needs of those who are -- have problems they're interested in or benefit from that are funded in the Labor-HHS bill and try to make political points for the next election based on that kind of activity.
So that's what we're complaining about. Let's put partisan politics aside and try to reach a common ground, as we inevitably have to do, between the views of the Congress and the views of the administration.
Q (Off mike) -- White House?
SEN. COCHRAN: Well, I'm not aware of any such rebuff, but if you said he has, he probably thinks he has.
SEN. MCCONNELL: I agree with Senator Cochran. I mean, the fundamental point here is that at some point the gamesmanship will have to stop and we'll have to approve these bills. Exactly at what point the gamesmanship stops, I think we're probably not in a position to predict, but at some point we will.
Q Senator McConnell, on SCHIP, you object -- (off mike) -- Harry Reid's efforts to allow more time for associations to reach compromise --
SEN. MCCONNELL: Actually, I --
Q Two Republicans have asked -- Grassley and Hatch have asked for more time to reach a deal. I'm wondering if you would accommodate their efforts to reach a common -- (off mike) -- to get this bill approved.
SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, Senator Reid determined when we had the votes; frankly, the negotiations are ongoing. They've been going on for quite some time, and whether we did or didn't vote yesterday wouldn't stop the negotiations. We all know the bill that passed yesterday will not be signed by the president, so the need for negotiations is ongoing. And I think we'll settle this at some point.
Q Senator McConnell, what have other Republicans have tried to do to pressure the majority in the event that the Judiciary Committee does not support Judge Mukasey's nomination to the floor?
SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I'm optimistic. Let's just go back to the beginning on Mukasey. Our Democratic colleagues said we needed a new attorney general, so we got a new attorney general. They said there needed to be a bipartisan consultation; the president engaged in bipartisan consultation. One of the Democratic leaders, in fact, suggested Judge Mukasey, and the president nominated Judge Mukasey.
I think The Washington Post editorial page got it right this morning -- it's time to confirm him. The Justice Department, according to our Democratic colleagues, has been not doing very well for quite some time and needs new leadership. Judge Mukasey now is going to end up -- this period between nomination and, I assume, confirmation at some point is going to be quite lengthy compared to virtually any attorney general nominee in the recent past.
I haven't given up that he's going to be confirmed. I believe the Judiciary Committee is going to act Tuesday. I'm hopeful that he will come out of committee and that he will be confirmed on the floor of the Senate.
Q Senator McConnell, on that -- (off mike).
SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, you'd have to ask Senator Schumer about that.
Q Do you personally believe that he should support --
SEN. MCCONNELL: You'd have to ask -- you'd have to ask him what he has to --
Q If he's not confirmed, can anybody get confirmed to that post? And what do you think of this idea of just not appointing somebody to the post?
SEN. MCCONNELL: If an individual as qualified as Judge Mukasey can't be confirmed, it does raise an interesting question as to who could be confirmed, which I think was one of the points The Washington Post editorial page made today.
This is an incredibly accomplished individual, a perfect choice for the job. I can't believe it's become contentious. And I'm still hopeful -- I have not given up hope that he'll be confirmed shortly.
I'm going to take one more if there is one.
Q (Off mike.)
SEN. MCCONNELL: I'm sorry?
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Q Senator McConnell, one final question. There was a report in The Post today about Consumer Product Safety Commissioner Nord taking trips that were paid for by the toy companies and others that are having some troubles now with their products. Do you think it's somewhat of an impropriety for her to be taking these trips, or -- ?
SEN. MCCONNELL: Yeah, I didn't read the story. I'll have to read it.
Q (Off mike.) (Laughter.)
Q (Off mike) -- the editorial page?
SEN. MCCONNELL: I did. I did. I always go to The Washington Post editorial page -- (laughter) -- (off mike) -- I know what I'm going to do that day. (Laughter.)
Q Thank you, gentlemen. (Laughter.)