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CNN "State Of The Union With John King" - Transcript

Interview

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KING: And joining us now to offer his perspective on health care, Afghanistan, and more, is the top Republican in Congress, the Senate minority leader, Mitchell McConnell of Kentucky.

Senator McConnell, let me ask you an open-ended question. You just listened to 20 minutes there with the president of the United States. What most jumped out at you?

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), KENTUCKY: Well, I certainly agree with the president and disagree with President Carter that this great national debate we're having right now has anything whatsoever to do with race.

I mean the American people are concerned when they see the government running banks and insurance companies and car companies and now want to, in effect, take over almost 20 percent of our economy, our health care.

These are the kinds of things about which there ought to be a very spirited debate and we're in the process of having that here in this country.

KING: Well, I want you to listen, not to the president, but I want you to listen to your own voice. You spoke here in Washington on Friday to a conservative gathering about the health care debate and you voiced quiet confidence about the Republican position. Let's listen.

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MCCONNELL: We're seeing it today in the debate over health care. Ordinary Americans, speaking their minds, dismissed and ridiculed by people in power. The reason they are doing this is clear, because we're winning the argument.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Define "winning" for me. Is winning blocking the Democratic plans and ending this year without a health care reform bill reaching the president's desk?

MCCONNELL: No, winning is stopping and starting over and getting it right. I don't know anybody in my Republican conference in the Senate who's in favor of doing nothing on health care. We obviously have a cost problem and we have an access problem.

But there's a very big difference about whether or not it's appropriate to have a major rewrite of about one sixth of our economy in the process. My members just don't think that's the right way to go. We want to fix the health care system, but we don't want to do or have a $1 trillion over 10-year cut in Medicare, and not to make Medicare more sustainable, but to start a new program for others.

We don't think it's a good idea to raise taxes on small businesses and on individuals in the heart of a recession. There are some serious differences about what ought to be done.

KING: I saw your speech just before I went over to see the president. So I asked him about it. Listen to this exchange.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Mitchell McConnell told the conservative group, we're winning the health care debate. What do you think of that?

OBAMA: Well, you know, they were saying they were winning during the election too.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: A confident president there, saying he will get health care. He also said in an interview with Univision that's airing this morning that he would love Republican votes, but I don't count on them. I don't count on them.

Mr. Leader, let me ask you this. If they go forward and they do this with all Democrats, what does that do to the environment down the road? Some Republicans have said well then don't expect our cooperation on financial reform. Don't expect our cooperation on Afghanistan.

Is this one issue, health care, or could it poison the well?

MCCONNELL: Look, it's not about winning or losing, and it's not about the president. It's about American health care and getting it right. And if they try to use this legislative loophole called reconciliation, what they'll be doing, in effect, is jamming through a proposal to rewrite the economy with about 24 hours of debate. Basically, a legislative loophole to do a massive rewrite of one sixth of our economy.

I think that that will produce a very, very severe reaction among the American people, who are already, according to the Gallup Poll, not in favor of the direction we're taking on this very important issue. KING: Help me understand, if there's a gap between the audience in the sense that you say here, it's not about winning or losing, but you were very clear to that conservative group, we're winning the argument.

MCCONNELL: Well, by winning, the definition of winning is to stop and start over and do it right.

KING: Let me move you to the world stage. One of the things that struck me is when I asked the president about Afghanistan, our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr says General McChrystal's ready to send his recommendation, his report to the president, but he has been told just wait a little bit. They want to discuss some other things first.

And the president said -- he explained that and said well, we have this big strategy we have to work through, other questions first about the election, about the political situation, and I don't want to put the resource question ahead of those other things.

The president's answer makes sense to you on that?

MCCONNELL: Well, I mean the president enjoys very strong support among Republicans in the Senate for what he's doing in Afghanistan. We are, however, disturbed by reports from your network, CNN, that he was, in effect, asking General McChrystal to delay his recommendation.

We think it is time to receive the recommendation. We'd like to see General McChrystal and General Petraeus come up to Congress, like they did during the Iraq surge, and give us the information about what they're recommending.

We think the time for decision is now. As Senator McCain has pointed out, when you delay a decision like this, you, arguably, maybe, unnecessarily endanger the lives of our soldiers. If we need to change strategy, if we need to increase the troop strength there, I think the president will enjoy a lot of support among Senate Republicans.

KING: And do you believe, sir, we need more troops in Afghanistan?

MCCONNELL: I think he ought to rely on the -- look, General Petraeus did a great job with the surge in Iraq. I think he knows what he's doing. General McChrystal is a part of that. We have a lot of confidence in those two generals. I think the president does as well. I think he ought to follow his advice.

KING: Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. As always, sir, we appreciate your time here on STATE OF THE UNION.

MCCONNELL: Thank you, John.

KING: And coming up, an exclusive interview with the Armed Service Committee chairman about his concerns with President Obama's Afghanistan strategy. But straight ahead, we'll look at stories breaking this Sunday.

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