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Republican Leadership's Stakeout Media Availability Following Senate Policy Luncheons

Location: Washington, DC

Federal News Service


SEN. SANTORUM: A few weeks ago, we had a press conference in the Mansfield Room, talking about our agenda to create jobs here in America. And today the secretary of Commerce was in, speaking to us at our policy lunch, talking about the administration's plans for expanding this economy and an update on where the economy is. And this week we're launching into one of our jobs issues, with the class action bill, and working on the energy bill and a whole host of other things.

And here to kick off today's stakeout on what we're doing to create a better environment for jobs and growing this economy is our leader, Bill Frist. Bill?

SEN. FRIST: Good. Thanks. Thanks, Rick.

Jobs, jobs, jobs. That's where our focus is. About three weeks ago we laid out a Republican agenda, and both the secretary and Senators Hatch and Bennett will be commenting on the specifics.

But on this agenda, this agenda to take action to create and protect jobs, we mentioned the energy bill you're hear more about shortly; class action reform -- we've got it on the floor of the United States Senate. I look forward to the debate later tonight and tomorrow and going to that bill.

We have the asbestos bill, which all of you know we're working very, very hard, under the leadership of Senator Hatch. We know, in terms of asbestos, it's costing our economy about $2.4 billion. Seventy companies have gone bankrupt, 20 in the last two years. It costs us in the future, projected, about 30,000 jobs a year. So you're going to see action on asbestos.

In January or very early February, we'll be addressing the highway bill, which is part of our agenda, again, for job and job creation.

The workforce investment bill you'll be hearing more about in the future and again -- and the secretary may comment later -- on the Economic Development Agency bill, all part of this larger agenda to show that Republicans are focused on the creation of jobs, as well as the protection of jobs.

Our agenda has been laid out. We're going through it in a step-wise fashion. We're delighted to have with us Secretary Evans, who we had the opportunity to share a lot of these ideas with in our caucus.

And at this juncture, I'll turn to the secretary.

SEC. EVANS: Thank you, Mr. Leader.

I summary, Americans are working more, and soon more Americans will be working. The economy continues to pick up steam. As we look at the indicators that have been coming out over the last several months, I would say to you that what I like to see is that the real numbers continue to exceed the forecast and the expectations. GDP growth, retail sales, another very indicator this last week came out with business spending increasing 5.2 percent in the second quarter, the first time we've seen that kind of increase in three years. That's one of the keys to really get the economy going and creating more jobs. We are --

Also I had the chance to talk to the Senate Republicans today, talked about the importance of an energy bill. You cannot have a strong economy without affordable and available energy. It's very important for Congress to send to the president an energy bill. This specific energy will create and protect some 500,000 jobs. So it's a very, very important bill to get to the president's desk.

Talked about the president's six-point job plan, which was as the good senator talked about. Legal reform: they mentioned asbestos litigation and class action lawsuits that are being looked at; health care reform; the importance for the tax cuts to be permanent; streamlining regulations and reporting requirements; opening up trade around the world is another point that in the -- in the president's plan. I'm going to China on Friday to talk more about leveling the playing field around the world. We Americans love to compete. And we believe strongly that opening up trade around the world will create the atmosphere for more jobs here in America. But we're going to demand that we're on a level playing field and everybody plays by the same rules. So --

And finally, I did have the chance to talk about the Department of Commerce's manufacturing initiative, a very important sector of our economy. We're optimistic in that sector that we're beginning to see the turnaround, specifically the number I mentioned earlier: business spending was up 5.2 percent in the second quarter.

So we had a very good discussion, but we're going to continue to have our focus on jobs, jobs and jobs. Thank you.

SEN. HATCH: Well, when we talk about jobs, we have to talk about legal reform. We have so many class actions that are frivolous in nature, they're eating up companies, taking away jobs, taking away health care, taking away raises in pay, taking away pensions. And frankly, we know that some of these attorneys are so unscrupulous that they are basically forum-shopping in four or five states where they know the judges are corrupt, where they know the jurors don't seem to understand that all these costs are passed on to the American people and raise the cost to everybody in our society, and where they get outrageous verdicts for nothing, like $150 million for five people who aren't even sick, never had a day in their lives sick in a jurisdiction that is different from almost any other jurisdiction in the country.

So that's why we're fighting for class action reform on the floor. It will not stop good lawyers from bringing good class action suits, but it will stop this forum-shopping, the frivolous suits that eat up corporate profits, take away jobs, and really ruin the economy as a whole.

One last thing. Just in the class actions on asbestos, we've tried to do an asbestos reform bill. And for all the debating, all the negotiating, all of the talk, we have never once had even the slightest suggestion from the unions as to what they want to do, even though they know that the $108 billion, let alone the $114 billion that has been negotiated by our major leader, that that money alone could give most of their employees, most of their union members more than they will ever get out of asbestos litigation. It's the way to resolve that problem. Already 70 companies are in bankruptcy, hundreds more may go into bankruptcy, thousands and thousands of jobs are lost -- 60,000 already, and many, many more are going to be lost if we continue down this really, really terrible pathway of just allowing some of these unscrupulous lawyers to just run free through forum-shopping and other abuses of the class action system that are really eating our country alive.

So that's what we're trying to do in class action reform. I'd like to get this asbestos reform done for the workers. I believe we can, but we've got to have at least a suggestion from the unions where they are and what they want, because until we get that, I guess the Democrats just plain won't vote for anything, even though they know it's a good deal.

SEN. BENNETT: At core, we must always remember, is the economy. And if the economy is not doing well, then nothing else works well. If the economy is doing well, we see the budget deficit come down, we see jobs created, we see the country moving forward. And as Secretary Evans has indicated, the indicators are all very strong that the economy is doing well, and we're seeing the results.

The deficit will be $85 billion less than the number the Democrats have been using on the floor during the Iraq debate. They've been using $455 billion as the deficit for this year, which is the highest estimate we ever had. As we come to the close of the year, CBO is saying the actual number will be closer to $380 billion, $85 billion less. I wish we could take credit for that in the Congress, and I am sure there are many in the Senate who will, but the fact is, "it's the economy, stupid." It's the economy, made up of entrepreneurs, hardworking American men and women having ideas, creating jobs by virtue of their investment, their risk-taking, and the placing of the capital in the right area.

One of the things that we have done that clearly has had an impact on helping to bring down the deficit and create jobs -- and by the way, September saw the first increase in jobs in eight months, and we readjusted the numbers for August to say that that wasn't as bad as previously thought. So the numbers are clearly there. The one thing we can look back on and say did have a significant impact was the tax cut. It came at the right time. It hit the economy at just the moment when it needed that kind of a bump, and we can be grateful for the tax cut because, as a result of it, we're seeing the deficit come down, just as those of us who are optimistic predicted, and we're seeing the jobs beginning to come up.

What we need to do is stay the course, keep the economy as strong as we can, do no harm, and let the entrepreneurial engine of the American spirit carry us forward, and then we politicians can all take credit after the fact for what's really been done by hardworking Americans if we just give them a little more opportunity o control their own money and their own destiny.

Q Senator Frist, are you saying that there is no hope for the asbestos bill to come to the floor this year? And on what basis can you promise it for January or February? Are you talking to the unions?

SEN. FRIST: Yeah, I'm very hopeful that we can bring asbestos to the floor as soon as possible. And I just don't know when that will be. It is very important that we start, I believe, with the bill that Senator Hatch has produced, coupled with a starting point of the negotiations that I have produced working with the insurance companies and the defendants coming together. I'm very hopeful that labor will take those two platforms and give a response. And if we can get a response, I believe we could address asbestos reform, you know, in a very reasonably short time period before we were out, whenever that's going to be, this year.

If not, I am -- this is too important to the American people. It does translate down into jobs. With 20 companies having gone bankrupt in the last 24 months; over 60, almost 70 companies having gone bankrupt, victims only getting 50 cents on the dollar of the money that's being put into the fund, clearly, we've got have a system -- a better system. There's a better system there. It's just the parties need to all come to the table, and when they all come to the table, we'll be able to continue those negotiations.

I'm absolutely committed to seeing this through. And I've talked to the Democratic leader about it, and I believe he's committed to seeing this through. Right now, based on the negotiations that we have put on the table, I'm very -- or, the proposal we've put on the table, I hope that other parties will come to the table and those negotiations will continue. We're going to end up getting this through as soon as possible.

Q On the energy bill, Senator Frist, Senator Domenici said that ANWR is in right now; he's having trouble getting some Democratic senators to come over to support that. If he is not able to do that, is that going to be a defeat for the administration on ANWR?

SEN. FRIST: On ANWR, I don't know whether it's going to be in the final bill or not. Right now, the energy bill is close to completion in terms of negotiation, but there's still some outstanding issues. And I think that all those negotiations will be wrapped up at the end of next week, and I -- ANWR is still on the table, still being talked about and negotiated. But I'm not in a position right now to predict whether it will or will not be in it.

Q Senator? On the ban of partial birth abortion --

SEN. FRIST: Partial birth abortion?

Q Yes. How well will it stand up against a court challenge?

SEN. FRIST: First of all, I'm very excited that once and for all, we'll be sending a bill to the president of the United States which will be signed to ban partial birth abortions. It's an egregious, outlandish, ghoulish procedure that is totally, from a medical standpoint, unnecessary today. It will pass today overwhelmingly; will be sent to the president of the United States. It will not be vetoed, as it has been by previous -- by a previous president.

It is constitutional, I believe, in that the language both in the bill, as well as in the findings itself, it will stand any sort of assault on whether or not it's constitutional or not. I'm very comfortable with that.

Q So it will stand up against a court challenge?

SEN. FRIST: Yes, it will. Yes, it will.

Q Senator --

Q On the omnibus --

Q Mr. Leader --

SEN. FRIST: Let me come -- go ahead. Yes?

Q Can you go back to energy for just a moment?


Q A week ago you and the speaker got directly involved in this. At that point, there were a few issues left to resolve. Today there are a few issues left to resolve. What are those issues, and what's holding up the bill?

SEN. FRIST: First of all, I'm confident we have an energy bill that is going to address the issue of renewables, production, consumption, electricity transmission, a more efficient use of energy today. I'm absolutely confident of that.

It's a big bill. We don't have a comprehensive energy policy in the United States of America. We're making progress towards that. And there is nothing unusual about where we are today in that process.

And so once again, we're going to have a very good bill that will come back, that we'll vote upon and then send to the president of the United States, for the American people.

Q Senator, are you confident that you can keep a provision in the conference on the Iraq aid bill that loans will prevail -- that loans will not prevail and that grants will prevail? Today the House, although non-binding, did, I think, okay a provision to instruct conferees to perhaps go in that direction.

SEN. FRIST: Well, I've made it very clear from the outset that I agree with the president of the United States that the $87 billion should be grants and not loans. The Senate position is different than that. We go to conference with the Senate position and the House position, which does basically agree with the president of the United States. Don't know what the outcome will be. I believe the president will continue to make the case that the best thing for the Iraqi people and indeed for the American people is that this be grants or loans. We'll probably know about the end of next week what that outcome will be.

Q But Senator, what do you make of the vote in the House today? Although it is non-binding, what's your reaction to that vote?

SEN. FRIST: I haven't seen the -- what the House said today.

Q Senator, the Congressional -- go ahead.

Q Senator Frist, what's the latest on the international tax bill?

SEN. FRIST: International tax bill -- I don't know what the latest is going to be in terms of when it's going to actually be addressed. I just don't know that.

Q The Congressional Black Caucus today, with the other minority caucuses, joined together with Senator Daschle to draft a bill next week about eliminating health disparities for minorities. Will you be working with them on their bill, or will they have to come to you?

SEN. FRIST: Well, they -- neither the Congressional Black Caucus has come to me nor have the Democrats. But that doesn't mean very much, because I'll look forward to working with them. Health care disparities exist today. It's inexcusable that they exist. I say that as a physician. I say that as a policymaker.

We had very successful legislation in 1998, developed in a bipartisan way, the year 2000, on health disparities, and the year 2001. That was developed in a bipartisan way, and I think we can address closing the gap of health care disparities in a bipartisan way.

So I look forward to seeing what they've put on the table.

I will say that I've outlined an agenda that I expect to introduce in the near future on this very issue, that builds upon the great success we've had in the past. But when you have HIV/AIDS in Latinos which is four times higher than in whites, or nine times higher in African-Americans, for example, or you could look at prostrate disease, or you could look at diabetes, it's inexcusable and it must be addressed by our government, I think. So I look forward to talking both to the Democrats as they put this bill on the floor or develop it, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus. It has to be addressed.

Q Will you move to cloture on the EPA administrator nominee? There are six Democrats with holds on Governor Leavitt.

SEN. FRIST: On Governor Leavitt, no decision has been made yet. I don't know exactly who has the holds, but I will be talking to them. I do want to accelerate, move forward Governor Leavitt as quickly as we can.

All right, one more question.

Q There were at least 60 Republicans who voted with Democrats in the House vote on the Iraq reconstruction, in adopting the Senate language on loans. Do you think that's significant? Can you just comment?

SEN. FRIST: Yeah, I just -- I really haven't followed what's happened in the House of Representatives today, I've got so much going on here. So I -- of course it's significant if they voted it. I know, ultimately, this is going to be decided in conference, and that conference they've begun the discussions. It will probably be through next week, and then we'll just have to go from there.

Q Do you think loans will prevail in the end?

SEN. FRIST: I hope grants prevails! (Laughs.) I'll continue to work for grants. I'm sure the president of the United States will work for grants. And we'll just keep going.

One more.

Q (Off mike.)

SEN. FRIST: Well, that's certainly no surprise. The president of the United States has said it very clear that he believes it should be grants and not loans. It's in the best interest of the American people, the Iraqi people, and the global community. So that issue, if it is a veto threat as just described to me, doesn't surprise me at all.

Thank you all very much.

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