PRESS CONFERENCE WITH SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), SENATE MINORITY LEADER
SEN. MCCONNELL: I'm sorry for the delay.
Well, here we are, in the last month of the year. We have done one of 12 appropriation bills. This is the latest time in my memory when we have not fixed the AMT. We still have the issue of funding for the troops before us. In summary, it's been a year of very little accomplishment.
Having said all that, Congress frequently at the end of a session does an awful lot in a very short period of time, and if ever there were a time that requires that, this is it.
So I'm hopeful that we'll be able to make progress on all of these fronts. We also have two other issues -- since a good deal of what I'm talking about would be through negotiation and not floor time, we have two other issues that we probably have the floor time to deal with, and that is the FISA extension, and there is still a chance, I think, that we can move the farm bill out of the Senate, which I think a lot of members on both sides of the aisle would like to be able to do.
So I just -- the majority leader and I just finished discussing all of these items. And I think we certainly agree that we'd like to do them all. Exactly how to do them we have a difference of opinion on, but that's of course the way it is around here. And we'll work on that and see if we can get it sorted out before the end of the year.
The final thing I would say is, I just really think this has been a disappointing first session of the 110th. The day I was elected Republican leader, I said I'd rather be a majority leader, but divided government's frequently done big things, important things for the country.
And I mentioned Reagan and Tip O'Neill on Social Security in the '80s, and Bill Clinton and the Republicans and welfare reform in the '90s. I just don't think the new majority wanted to do anything significant, and we have, of course, a lot of big problems that are best solved on a bipartisan basis. And when you have divided government, like we do now, you have to do it on a bipartisan basis frequently; that's the best time to tackle things.
Regretfully, the pattern has largely been repetitious Iraq votes. I've had my staff count them up, and I think House and Senate we've had 63 Iraq votes this year and multiple investigations. We would have been a lot better off, in my view, turning off the election. We've had a regularly scheduled election every two years since 1988. There's always an election coming up. I think we'd have been better off to just turn that off after last November and turn our attention to some of the big, some would argue, intractable problems that we have, and a Social Security fix, for example, would be another thing that we know needs to be done.
Having said that, the year is over, that did not happen. The items that I outlined initially are the ones that need to be dealt with in the next two to three weeks. I'm hopeful we can.
With that, let me throw it open.
Q Did Senator Reid tell you the plan to bring up the House- passed Iraq bill again?
SEN. MCCONNELL: I'm not going to speak for him. You'll have to ask him. We're going to turn first to the Peru trade agreement is my understanding, and we hope to be able to get work done on FISA and the farm bill, as I indicated.
Q But Senator Cochran is working with Senator Byrd and the House to put together -- (off mike) -- appropriations bills, middle way between the Democrats -- (off mike) -- President Bush's. First, can you support that general idea or something maybe a little lower if you can work out Iraq?
SEN. MCCONNELL: What we would like to have is a presidential signature, and any negotiation that doesn't include the president, of course, is not going anywhere. And I think we'll all be talking about that in the next couple of days.
Q Have you recommended to the White House that they --
SEN. MCCONNELL: I've been in discussions with the White House. I've not made a particular recommendation. I do think that we can't leave here not dealing with the troop funding issue, and given the lack of time available, the best way to deal with the troop funding issue would be in the context of some kind of settlement on an overall omnibus appropriation bill, just in terms of the amount of time left.
Q Senator McConnell, is there any -- about the troop-funding bill, is there any sort of negotiations going on with that in particular?
SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, we know already from the multiple votes that we've had this year what won't get a presidential signature. Any kind of surrender date or any kind of congressional micromanagement of the war, even if it were adequate on the funding side, is not going to get a signature, and we do need to get a signature here.
Look, nobody would argue that the war is over, but when even The New York Times on the front page has not one, but multiple articles about how things have improved in Iraq, we certainly don't want to pull the plug on the funding when things are going better. Funds were supplied earlier this year when the perception was that things weren't going well at all. So now that things are going better, why would we want to try to have Congress take over the management of the war? General Petraeus is doing quite well without our directions.
Q Republicans have thought the deal to amend the farm bill -- I think Senator Reid was talking about -- (off mike). How do you imagine the farm bill -- (off mike)?
SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, UC means "unanimous consent," as you know. These things are done by a process of negotiation down to a certain number of amendments on each side. Those discussions are ongoing. There are a lot of people that would like to pass the farm bill on both sides of the aisle and that usually produces the kind of environment in which things are possible, and those discussions continue.
Q Senator McConnell, what do you see the prospects of doing an energy bill in the remaining time in Congress?
SEN. MCCONNELL: It's my understanding that the -- you know, we did not have a conference on the energy bill -- that the Democrats would like to do an energy bill. I've read that the renewable portfolio standard might be in it. That would be very troublesome for all of us in the Southeast. That's a mandatory rate increase and would produce a lot of difficulty.
The other part of the suggested bill, if it is included, that could be troublesome would be a tax increase. With oil being almost $100 a barrel, we don't think we need to drive up the cost of gasoline. So we'll have to see whether the majority decides to put either or both of those provisions in there. If they're not in there, it could be smoother sailing.
The other big, contentious issue, I'm told -- again, this is just from reading the newspaper -- that they've decided to split off the CAFE standards between trucks and cars. That's a step in the right direction. We'll have to take a look at it and see whether those offending provisions are still in there.
Q You mentioned that you want to see a settlement on the overall omnibus. Is it your opinion, though, that that settlement has to include a bridge fund that has absolutely no strings attached -- (off mike)?
SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I can't speak for the president, but just looking at the situation, we've got two or three weeks here left. Just how much floor time do you have for free-standing measures? I think a better way to deal with it would be to wrap it all up together and do both the troop funding and the spending bills together because it's just less floor time.
Q But with no strings attached to the --
SEN. MCCONNELL: I don't think the president's going to sign a bill that in effect substitutes Congress' judgment for General Petraeus' judgment as to how to manage the war.
I think the general's demonstrated in the last six months he knows what he's doing. He's getting results. And why would we want to do that at this point?
Q Senator McConnell?
SEN. MCCONNELL: Paul?
Q Senator, at this point have you just resolved (sic) yourself to serving out all next year with Larry Craig, or do you think at some point something might happen which would prompt Senator Craig to listen to what leadership wanted him to do and resign?
SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, the matter's before the ethics committee, and we'll see, you know, what they think is appropriate.
Q Senator McConnell, on AMT, what's the likelihood of having that on the floor before the recess --
SEN. MCCONNELL: Pretty good. Pretty good. I think we all want to fix it. The only issue is, Republicans don't believe, in order to collect a tax that we know is never going to be levied, that we ought to raise taxes on others. In other words, we don't think it ought to be, quote, "paid for," which is the Democratic view of tax relief, that in order to give tax relief to some you must increase taxes on others.
We all know the AMT's never going to be levied and never collected anyway. It was a mistake. I think most Republicans would like to repeal the whole thing, period, without paying for it. Why would you want to have to raise taxes on somebody else in order to discontinue a kind of phantom levy that we've been preventing from going into effect every year anyway and never intend to collect? So we'd like to get rid of it, but we don't want to raise taxes on others in order to get rid of a tax we're never going to collect anyway.
We should have done this months ago, months ago. We now have a genuine crisis in delayed refunds and the printing of tax return forms, simply by not getting it done on time.
Q Senator, is your anticipation that an omnibus would also include some kind of continuing spending level for SCHIP, or is there any kind of resolution for SCHIP possible between -- (off mike)?
SEN. MCCONNELL: Yeah, I don't -- I simply don't know what's possible there. We are -- we have been at an impasse, as you well know, on that issue. And if anything has moved on it over the last two weeks, I've not heard about it.
Q Senator McConnell, there's a new intelligence report out that would indicate, as I understand it, that the Iranians have dropped their -- largely, their nuclear program or their threatened program that we're all worried about, about four years ago. In view of that, what does that do to the stance of you-all and the administration on worrying about Iran as the next trouble spot after Iraq?
SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, let me say, I hope it's accurate. If it's accurate, it would be a big relief, I think, to our Sunni Arab allies, the Egyptians, the Saudis, the Jordanians, as well as our Israeli ally, as well as our French, German and British allies. I am generally aware of it. I know this just came out. I certainly hope it's accurate.
Q How did you then leave it with Senator Reid? You're obviously working on the shape of this omnibus. Are you going to be talking again tonight? Or --
SEN. MCCONNELL: We talk all the time. We're working on it.
Q When do you think you might -- can you give us any kind of --
SEN. MCCONNELL: How many days is it till Christmas? (Laughter, cross talk.)
I mean, obviously we don't have any consuming desire to be here until Christmas Eve. We're working on it.
Q But is it realistic for Senator Reid to say, I mean, he doesn't want a CR, so we know that expires on the 14th. (Off mike) -- wrap all of this and try to get -- I mean, does that give you some leverage on passing a clean warfunding bill, if he wants no CR; he wants to get all of this done by the 14th? I mean --
SEN. MCCONNELL: You know, I can't get into -- you all are familiar with the rhythm of the place and what the deadlines are and the desire of all of us including, I assume, you all not to be here Christmas Eve. And we're working on it.
Q Senator, what do you expect to see at the leadership elections -- (off mike)?
SEN. MCCONNELL: I expect that we will have them at 9:30 Thursday morning, after which we will announce the outcome. (Laughter.)
Q No predictions.
SEN. MCCONNELL: No predictions. No prediction, nor any involvement, I hasten to add. I read in a couple of your publications that there was some. There isn't any.
Okay, well, thanks a lot.
Q Thank you, Senator.