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KING: With us now exclusively, the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Mr. Leader, thank you for joining us. You don't like the way the vote went down last night. You were on the losing side.
Now that the Democrats have 60 votes to start debate -- a long way to go, a lot of issues to debate, but do you believe, like it or not, that that vote means that the Senate will pass and the Congress will send to the president a health care bill late this year or early next?
MCCONNELL: Yes, not necessarily. First of all, we'll have an extensive debate. The Senate's not like the House. They had three votes on one day and it was over. Just to look at recent legislative activities on the Senate side, we spent four weeks last Congress on a farm bill, seven weeks creating the Department of Homeland Security a few years ago, eight weeks on an energy bill. The Senate doesn't do things quickly.
So we'll have multiple amendments, John, from both sides, a free- ranging, open debate. And as we begin the debate, the one thing we know for sure, that didn't come up in the last segment -- I know why it didn't; they don't want to talk about it -- we know the American people don't want us to do this.
The CNN poll is the same as all the other polls. The American people are opposed to this particular health care bill. They thought this was all going to be about controlling costs, but, in fact, we've ended up with a $2.5 trillion budget-busting proposal that CBO, the scorekeeper in Congress, tells us, after it's all over, will not control costs.
KING: The scorekeeper does say, after 10 years, it brings down the deficit, if the Democrats cast all those tough votes.
MCCONNELL: Yes, but, you know, it was full of gimmicks. They delayed for five years the benefits. If you look at 10 years for the whole program fully implemented, it's $2.5 trillion.
So this proposal picked the most favorable 10-year period in order to get the CBO to say, within this framework, it would actually bend the deficit some. But that -- it's not the truth. I mean, everybody knows it's not the truth.
KING: Is the Republican strategy just get in the way and block it? Or is the Republican strategy, try to improve it and then maybe vote yes on a final bill that you don't like some of it, but it's better than today?
MCCONNELL: Well, this bill is certainly not better. It drives the costs up for Americans; it cuts Medicare dramatically.
KING: Now, the Democrats say it saves Medicare, but it doesn't cut a benefit.
MCCONNELL: Yes, let me tell you, five years ago we passed, when my side was in the majority, a rather modest reduction in the rate of increase of Medicare, at about $10 billion over five years. My counterpart, the majority leader, called it immoral. This is half a trillion dollars over 10 years, higher taxes on individuals and on businesses, higher insurance premiums for 85 percent of the American people who already have insurance.
That's not reform. That's not what the American people thought this was all about.
KING: Answer the skeptic out there who's watching right now. You just made the point. You were the majority leader. The Republicans ran the Senate; they ran the House, as well, and you had a Republican president in the White House in George W. Bush. Answer the skeptic out there who says, well, why should I listen to you now, Mitch McConnell? Where was the McConnell bill to deal with pre- existing conditions? Where was the McConnell bill -- as Republicans say, let's do this; let's sell insurance across state lines -- where was the McConnell bill to help bend that cost curve in a helpful way? So how can you say no now, when you didn't -- and say, let's do this incrementally now, when you didn't do it then?
MCCONNELL: Well, we didn't have the votes to pass it. They were against doing something about junk lawsuits against doctors and hospitals which would save $54 billion. They were not in favor of the kind of wellness programs that we think would drive down the costs. They were not in favor of insurance competition across state lines. They were not in favor of equalizing the tax cod, so that individual purchasers of insurance are treated the same way corporate purchasers of insurance are.
KING: Again, the skeptic might say, why didn't we have all these issues on the floor, though? Harry Reid may lose this. He may lose this.
MCCONNELL: We had myriad health care debates during the period that President Bush was in office and during the time when there was a Republican majority. The Democrats simply don't want to do incremental changes.
John, we feel that we ought to go step by step to fix our current health care system. We do not believe, take -- the government taking over one-sixth of our economy, completely restructuring one-sixth of our economy is a good idea at any time. It is a particularly bad idea when we're looking at double-digit unemployment.
This bill is a job-killer. If you were running a small business, John, and you wanted -- thinking about whether or not to expand employment next year, and you looked at what's coming your way with this health care bill, you're going to have health care taxes, you're going to have expiration of the Bush tax cuts, so your tax rates are going to go up. The cost of hiring additional employees will be greatly exacerbated by the steps that they're taking. This is the wrong direction to go.
KING: And you mentioned you would prefer incremental reform. I want to ask you a question in the context of what you know is coming from the Democrats over the next several weeks as this debate goes on. Leader Boehner was here a few weeks ago; he heard it in the House. Senator Durbin and the Democrats say, Well, we have a plan. Maybe it's not perfect, but where's the Republican plan?
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DURBIN: I challenged Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans to produce a health care bill that will save us $127 billion in the deficit over the next 10 years, and there's nothing posted on the Internet. I challenged Mitch McConnell to come up with a bill that makes sure that 94 percent of Americans have the peace of mind of health insurance coverage, but the Republicans put nothing on the Internet.
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KING: Will you continue to say, "We want to do this incrementally," or will, because of the politics of the moment, do you feel compelled to come up with a comprehensive Republican alternative?
MCCONNELL: Yes, what we don't think is America wants another 2,000-page bill. It's this high. We had it on the floor. We don't think that's the way to go. We think we ought to go step by step to improve the -- the system that you and I have just been talking about, some of the steps we would take that would have an impact on the cost of health care.
The American people are not complaining about the quality of American health care. They're complaining about the cost of it. This proposal that the Democrats voted to proceed to last night will explode cost; it will make the situation worse. We think you ought to go in a different direction.
So don't hold your breath. We're not planning on having a 2,000- page bill.
KING: Let me -- well, before I shift gears, let me ask you this. You've been at this a long time, both as the majority leader and as a minority leader. On a scale of 1 to 10, the likelihood the Senate will pass a health care legislation this year and that Congress will send the president a bill before the State of the Union address next year?
MCCONNELL: Well, we don't often ignore the wishes of the American people. They are literally screaming -- many of them -- telling us, "Please don't pass this. Don't pass this bill."
If the majority is hell-bent on ignoring the wishes of the American people, they have 60 votes in the Senate. You would think that they might be able to do this, but I believe there are a number of Democratic senators who do care what the American people think and are not interested in this sort of arrogant approach that everybody -- sort of shut up and sit down, get out of the way, we know what's best for you.
Now, we're hearing from the American people, they don't want us to pass it. So I would -- you know, it's hard to handicap the ultimate outcome, whether the majority will ignore the American people or not, but they'll be heard. The American people will be heard. They'll either be heard sooner or they'll be heard later.
KING: Let me shift to the economy. Unemployment went up in 29 states this week, down in 13. I've traveled to 45 states in the last 45 weeks. And as much as they care about the health care debate, they care, first and foremost, about jobs and the economy.
There's been a lot of criticism of the president's economic team, including from a House Republican who said this week the secretary of the treasury should quit. Let's listen.
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REP. KEVIN BRADY (R), TEXAS: Conservatives agree that, as point person, you failed. Liberals are growing in that consensus, as well. Poll after poll shows the public has lost confidence in this -- in this president's ability to handle the economy. For the sake of our jobs, will you step down from your post?
(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: Now, Secretary Geithner, of course, says no. Are you among those who think that he's the problem? Does he need to go? Or is that just a little political pinata?
MCCONNELL: You know, look, I'm not here to call for anybody's resignation today. I think we ought to go in a different direction.
First of all, we ought not to pass this job-killing health care bill; that would be a good place to stop.
Second, we ought to repeal the balance of the stimulus package, which has been a failure. We added almost $1 trillion to the debt earlier this year, presumably to hold unemployment below 8 percent, which is what the administration said it would do. Now unemployment's over 10 percent.
In my state, John, it actually went up last month, unemployment getting worse. Rather than passing this job-killing health care bill, why don't we concentrate on getting the economy in better shape?
KING: I want to ask you -- last time you were here, you were pushing the president to make his decision about Afghanistan.
KING: The White House now tells us it will probably come not this week, but the week after, and they're working with NATO allies. As he makes this decision, you know the pressure from the left, and I want you to listen to the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. She did an interview with National Public Radio. She says this is a bad idea, not worth the money and not worth the American blood.
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PELOSI: The president of Afghanistan has proven to be an unworthy partner. How can we ask the American people to pay a big price in -- in lives and limbs and also in dollars if we don't have a connection to a reliable partner?
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KING: Does the speaker have a point? MCCONNELL: Look, I wish that we had a better regime in Afghanistan, but this is really about us, not them. Has everyone forgotten that when the Taliban was running Afghanistan, that's when Al Qaida planned and launched the 9/11 attack? We're not in Afghanistan for any reason other than to protect America.
And I had hoped -- and I still hope -- that the president's going to make the right decision here, which is to keep the pressure on. He said during the campaign that the war in Afghanistan was the good war, the war in Iraq was the bad war. Well, this is the good war and -- by his own definition.
And we need to keep on offense against both the Taliban and Al Qaida -- and by the way, this is not just Afghanistan, it's also Pakistan -- if we want to continue to protect the homeland.
So I haven't given up hope the president's going to do the right thing. I think, John, the military people are getting a little frustrated with the delay in making the decision. It's really time for the president to make the call.
KING: Let me ask you, lastly, Chairman Levin of the Armed Services Committee has said that he thinks we need a war surtax of some sort, a surtax on those making $200,000 or $250,000 a year to help pay for this. He says that's the way we need to go, and some in the House have called for something similar, not exactly the same as Chairman Levin. Do we need that, a special tax that says this is to pay for the cost of these wars?
MCCONNELL: Well, we've -- we've paid for both of these wars by borrowing money. There's no question about it. We did it in the previous administration; we've done it in this administration. It's a tough call as to whether or not we try to fund it through existing Defense Department resources or not, but we have had a tradition...
KING: You don't rule out some kind of a war tax?
MCCONNELL: I do, because I think we ought -- this is about our national security, you know? The Democrats are willing to bust the budget to pass a domestic program that the American people are against, but all of a sudden find it offensive to do something that is absolutely essential to the security of Americans here in the United States, which is to keep on offense in the war on terror.
KING: The Republican leader of the United States Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, thanks for joining us.
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