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CNBC "Interview With Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell" - Transcript

Interview

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MS. BURNETT: He has been called the most powerful Republican in the U.S. Senate and so far, no has been the word he has had for the president's agenda. What will it take to get the Republicans working with President Obama?

Joining us now, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Senator McConnell, thanks very much for joining us and being with us. I wanted to just start with this poll in terms of Republican motives for opposing the president's economic agenda, 30 percent of Americans say that the Republican Party is doing this on principle, 56 percent say they are doing it for political grandstanding and The Wall Street Journal says this morning, eight in ten Americans blame Republicans for the crisis.

You're the Republican Minority Leader, what do you say to these numbers?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I think people are still reacting to the previous administration. They were not happy with it; that's why they voted to make a change. Having said that, I don't think we ought to run the government by polls and it's not surprising that leaders of Congress are not popular; they're generally not popular at any point in our history even when times are good.

What we need to focus on is the policy and the president would have a lot more support among our members, Republican members, if he were, in fact, governing in the middle and so far, regretfully, he's not done that, you know. He's advocated things like the stimulus package and the bloated omnibus bill that have us spending at the rate of about a billion dollars an hour, $24 billion a day. I mean we don't think that's the way to go. We don't think we'd get out of this recession by spending too much, taxing too much and borrowing too much and that's been the pattern of this new administration.

MS. BURNETT: So if you were to say one thing that could change here or that you would support on an economic policy front from the president, what would it be then?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Fix housing first. That's --

MS. BURNETT: Now, they have a plan.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well --

MS. BURNETT: That they've put out there.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, we'll see whether it works, I mean, we thought instead of spending a trillion dollars on a stimulus package, we ought to spend about half that on housing and we had a proposal to do that and a little bit more than that leading up to about half a trillion dollars, putting money back in peoples' pockets, not that we don't think any action is needed, action is needed. The question is: What kind of action do you take?

Housing got us into this and housing is the way to get us out.

MS. BURNETT: Mark?

MR. HAINES: Senator, in the last election, results were pretty clear, your candidate for president lost. Your candidates for the Senate and the House lost and the polls clearly show the president with a large majority of support in the country and yet you appear intent on marginalizing yourselves by fighting what the president wants to do.

He's got the support of everyone.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, he doesn't have the support of everyone. We all wish the president well. We want him to succeed and I was hoping that he was going to --

MR. HAINES: Well, not one of your leaders.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, let me finish. I was hoping he was going to govern in the middle. That's the way he ran the campaign.

MR. HAINES: Well, why would he do that? He was elected on the left.

SEN. MCCONNELL: That's the way he ran the campaign, but so far the recommendations that he's made to us, the stimulus package, the bloated omnibus bill, now a $3.6 trillion budget that includes energy taxes on middle and low-income Americans.

Look, I don't think the voters sent us here to just rubberstamp every idea no matter how far to the left it might be. We're looking for opportunities to cooperate with the president, but it's really up to him. If he governs in the middle, he'll find widespread Republican support. If he goes hard left as he has at least so far, there won't be much Republican support.

MS. BURNETT: Senator McConnell, he has been consistent though and this is where I get confused in terms of people saying he's changed. During the campaign, he said he was going to roll back the Bush tax cuts and he was going to put those marginal tax cuts. He's actually increasing the capital gains tax by less than he indicated in the campaign. He had talked about these energy taxes. All of this is consistent with what he said before, but at that point, nobody raised a hand or to Mark's point, the American people did vote for it. So that's where I get a little bit confused.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, the American people voted for the president. They want him to succeed and many of these ideas, you're right, have been around for a long time, but Republicans simply don't believe they are the right way to go.

You know, we have a big country of 300 million people, a whole lot of different points of view and two political parties and I'm not going to and most of my members are not going to support policies that we think turn us into friends. If that were not enough, you've got --

MS. BURNETT: Well, they have a lower corporate tax rate, that might be one thing we would want --

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, let me tell you one thing --

MS. BURNETT: Which he said he's in favor of yesterday.

SEN. MCCONNELL: I'll give you an example of something we ought not to do is get rid of the secret ballot in labor union elections. They want to do that as well. They want to spend too much, tax too much, borrow too much and take away the secret ballot for goodness sake after 150 years of history of that in this country and around the world in making a decision about whether or not you're going to have a labor union.

We just don't think that's the right direction for the country.

MS. BURNETT: Mark?

MR. HAINES: So, you know, from my point of view, Senator, it looks to me like you've got a major PR problem, you've got a sales problem here. I happen to agree with much of what you said. I disagree with much of what the president is trying to do, but on the other hand, I look at the polls, I see the support he's got. I look at the votes -- results from the last election and either the Republican Party has got to come up with something that the public will buy, which so far it has not or we're going to continue down this path.

SEN. MCCONNELL: You know every two years since 1788 we had an election. The next election will be in November of 2010. We're not governing here on the basis of polls on a daily basis. I don't think we ought to simply wet our fingers, stick it in the air and see which way the wind is blowing to decide what our principles are. The American people sent us all here to exercise our best judgment.

The 41 Republican members of the United States Senate represent 50 percent of the American population, and so we are not putting our principles in escrow, we're going to proceed in this legislative process in a way that we think is best for the country and, you know, the voters will make that decision in 2010.

MS. BURNETT: What is the single most important thing though, I mean, one of the most frustrating things as Americans talk about is how they want more bipartisanship.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Yeah.

MS. BURNETT: It appears to be a constant argument over how to break up the pie, tax cuts, spending and we all know the pie is shrinking.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Yeah.

MS. BURNETT: And people want somebody to come forth with let's talk about making it bigger in more of an amorphous way of we need to create more jobs. But is that something to Mark's point where if there was a concrete Republican proposal for how to spark growth that that could help your perception --

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, we've had a number of concrete Republican proposals, including our housing proposal, which we offered as an alternative in the stimulus package, but if we're looking for bipartisanship -- let me tell you something we could do tomorrow. The president told me and the chief of staff to the president told me that they were willing to support a bipartisan commission to fix Social Security, in other words, a base closing type approach, Erin, that would get you a result. They seem to be backing away from that. That is something that you could get broad bipartisan support for. We all know the baby boomers are now in their sixties. We all know we have this huge demographic problem.

That's a long-term, debt-related problem we could fix on a bipartisan basis now. Regretfully, the Democratic leaders of Congress don't want to do that, so the president is pulling back.

Look, if he will govern in the middle, he will find a lot of Republican support and this particular proposal I just outlined is a good place to start.

MS. BURNETT: Well, Senator McConnell, thanks very much from both of us for being with us. We appreciate the time.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Thank you.


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