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Press Conference With Senator Mitch Mcconnell, Senate Minority Leader

Press Conference

Location: Washington, DC

SEN. MCCONNELL: Morning. I'm sure you're going to miss us for the next couple of weeks.

Q (Off mike.)

SEN. MCCONNELL: What do you guys do when we leave town? (Laughter.) I was looking at Emily. I -- she didn't -- she didn't respond. (Laughter.)

Q I'm going to say I make up stories. (Laughs.)

SEN. MCCONNELL: Yeah, right.

What I'd like to do this morning is make a brief statement about a letter that you have either been handed or will be handed shortly that 42 of my members are sending to Senator Reid to make the point that the tendency to fill up the tree and file cloture -- all of you know what that means; not a single American knows what it means. But let me put it another way: To prevent the minority from offering amendments is just not acceptable.

After the '04 election, one Democratic senator said, and I quote, "What gets in the way of an American dictator is the funny thing we call the Constitution. And the Senate is set up so that the minority has tremendous power and we want to work with the president." That Democrat was Harry Reid.

Another Democratic senator said after the 2004 election, quote, "Keep in mind that whoever's in charge, technically, of the Senate, whether it's Republicans or Democrats, they're not going to have 60 votes. And that means that, again, whoever's in power is going to have to govern with some modesty and some desire to work with the other side of the aisle. That's certainly the approach I would advise Democrats, should we regain control." That Democrat was Barack Obama.

So the point I would like to make here is that the 42 Republican senators represent 157 million Americans. Their voices are entitled to be heard. And the way to be heard in the Senate is to have an open amendment process. And that's what we've had historically until the last Congress, where it was routinely the device of the majority leader to prevent the minority from offering amendments. That is not going to stand. We're going to try to get that genie back in the bottle so that the 157 million people that we represent will have an opportunity to have their voices heard through the amendment process on the Senate floor.

Now, having said that, I think the new administration is off to a good start. Rahm Emanuel called me a couple of days ago, requested an opportunity to come up and meet with the Republican leadership, which we did in my office yesterday. They're saying, in my view, all the right things, both the president-elect and his chief of staff, that they want to govern in the middle and tackle big things. And that's been my advice to him personally since the election both -- and my advice publicly, again, today, that this is an opportunity to tackle big issues and to do them in the middle.

And it would not be a good idea for the new administration, in my view, to go down a laundry list of left-wing proposals and try to jam them through the Congress. I think that would not be a great way to start. I don't anticipate they're going to do that. I'm hoping for the best.

And with that, let me throw it open for whatever questions you might have.


Q For people who don't know -- you said that almost no Americans know what it means -- would you mind briefly defining filling the tree, what it is and why it matters?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I think the best way to define it is preventing the minority from having amendments, because the way it works -- all of you know this.

But the way it works, if you fill up the tree and file cloture, then the majority leader becomes the chairman of the House Rules Committee. He in effect determines whether or not he will open up the tree and allow any amendments or not. So one person gets to determine who gets to offer amendments.

I think the best way to sum it up, if I were writing a story, is Republican senators are going to insist on the opportunity to offer amendments that might be favored by the 157 million people that they represent.

(Cross talk.)

The lady right here.

Q Senator McConnell, can you talk a little bit about what it's like for your colleagues that are not going to be back in the Senate? For you, what is it like? Can you give us some straight talk about what you think it's going to be like?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I mean, it's certainly sad to say goodbye to a number of our colleagues, who either were leaving voluntarily or involuntarily. We had a dinner that I put on, Wednesday night, to honor our retiring members. It's not fun when you have that many people leaving.

On the other hand, I was here in 1992 and I have a sense of deja vu. In 1992, we had lost the White House, the House and the Senate. An unpopular president, with the same name as the current one, was leaving office. We had a special election in Georgia in December of 1992.

It's eerily similar to that period. And what happened after that? Well, we had even at -- we started at 42. When we won in Georgia, we went to 43. We had remarkable unity. And even though I'm not in any way predicting the outcome of the 2010 election, I would note that we had a pretty darn good election in 1994, just two years later.

So the two parties are very resilient. I've been here long enough to have been up and down several times. And I think our members in one way are kind of relieved by the departure of an administration that became unpopular and made it very difficult for us to compete. And so we will regroup and regenerate and go forward.

Q Anything more specifically about what you think it's going to be like for Senator McCain? He said on the campaign trail --

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, you'll have to ask Senator McCain about that.

I mean, he is our most prominent senator, without a question. He is very popular in our conference.

We all think that he did a fabulous job, under very, very difficult circumstances. To carry 46 percent of the vote, in the wake of the president's unpopularity and the economic uncertainty, was quite significant.

So I think Senator McCain enjoys a position of unique influence in our conference, and respect.

Q Senator, can you -- (inaudible) -- at the top of your remarks, you said the administration was off to a good start. You know, they think they're going to take on big issues and won't go to the left-wing agenda. Could you specify some of the big issues you'd like to see them tackle and what part of the left-wing agenda that they --

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I'll give you the one they ought to stay away from. It's card check. The notion that in this country -- I noticed they had a secret ballot yesterday choosing between Henry Waxman and John Dingell. If it's appropriate to elect the chairman of that committee in the House, it's certainly appropriate in deciding whether or not you want to be represented by a labor union at your company. The notion that in 2008 we would get rid of the secret ballot is utter nonsense. It's unacceptable. It's overwhelmingly unpopular. Even 80 percent of union members, in polls that I've seen, oppose it. That is the kind of thing that they ought not to pursue and, if they do pursue, ought to be defeated.

The things that we ought to be doing -- the other part of your question -- we all know, with the baby boomers now aging, that Social Security are on an unsustainable path. They're absolutely unsustainable. The math is undeniable. At what point are we going to tackle that? I think President Bush deserves a lot of credit for trying to get us to step up to the plate on Social Security. Well, we didn't do it. Not a single Democrat was interested in doing anything.

What I'm saying to the new president and to the new administration -- do big things, and do them in the center, and you'd be surprised how much support you might have.

Q Senator --

Q Senator --


Q -- with Democrats so close to 60 right now, how do you maintain party discipline within the Republican Party to ensure that more moderate members don't go over to give them a filibuster-proof majority on controversial issues?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I would refer you to the letter that I just gave you as the first indication that you're likely to have very significant unity among Republicans.

Also, you're assuming the Democrats are going to walk in lockstep. I would predict there are going to be a lot differences among Democrats, in both the House and the Senate -- those who kind of share my view that you ought to govern in the middle and those who have a sense of frustration that they've been out of power so long and want to go down and check the box and satisfy every left-wing group.

So I wouldn't assume a kind of lockstep unity on the majority side.

Q Senator McConnell, what was your reaction to what happened yesterday with the auto bailout bill? What do you think the prospects are of Congress actually doing something before the end of the year?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I think that the week's events have been a rather bizarre series. Leading up to the lame duck session, we were told it was critical that we act now. But there was no bill to debate and no plan for a vote.

Then we were handed a bill, late on Monday, that had support from neither the Democrats nor the Republicans. Then on Wednesday, the majority leader gave up on that bill and didn't even bring up. And yesterday, they gave up on the whole plan and said, never mind, we'll try again December the 8th maybe.

At this point, they decided the industry needed to come up with an actual plan. And I think it's been quite bizarre and quite confusing. So that would be my reaction to the events of the week. They'll have to decide, they meaning the majority here, whether they want to bring us back on December the 8th. And if so, what do they want us to do?

Q Do you think you should come back and do something?

SEN. MCCONNELL: They're the majority. They can call us back, and we'll see if they have any plans.

Q But you're asserting your rights as the minority here. Do you not have a view on whether Congress should come back and act on this?

SEN. MCCONNELL: My members have different views. Senator Bond and Senator Voinovich have an approach that mirrors what the administration is willing to do and would actually become law. So my advice would be, do you want to play games or do you want to make a law?

It strikes me that the Bond-Voinovich proposal, which is basically rewriting the terms of money that we've already appropriated, would be a way to get a law. All of these other versions are not going to be signed by the current president. So the majority is going to have to decide whether it wants to actually accomplish something, before the current president leaves office, or not.


Q Do you think the automakers should consider some sort of pre-packaged bankruptcy?

SEN. MCCONNELL: There are a lot of options out there that various people are advocating. I think we all accept that they are in serious trouble. No one is happy about that. But what to do about it remains to be seen.

The -- at the risk of being repetitious, there is a plan this administration is willing to sign. And if the majority wants to get something into law before January 20th, that would be the path to take. Otherwise, it will be a private sector kind of solution, presumably, that the companies would have to select from the various options available to them, all of which you're familiar with.

Q Mr. Leader?


Q You described these events of the past week as bizarre. There was some rattling around here that there was a deal worked out -- (off mike). Do you believe that that was the case and they pulled out the rug here?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I don't know. My impression was Senator Levin was rather surprised that all of a sudden things were put off until December 8th. But you'll have to ask him.


Q Mr. Leader, you mentioned the runoff in Georgia. Have you been involved, personally, in the interest of either of Georgia or Minnesota? How important -- given your concern --

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, they're extremely important, yeah. We're all involved in it, in one way or another, trying to be helpful.

Q Would your members allow a vote on the Levin-Bond proposal without amendment?

SEN. MCCONNELL: I don't know what will be worked out in terms of a consent agreement, but first there has to be a decision by the majority about what to bring up. And this has been a -- I described the week as bizarre. I think that's the right word for it. I mean, it's been a kind of floating target, here. There's never actually been something produced to vote on. At that point, you can discuss the terms about what should go to the vote.


Q Senator, do you think the automakers could provide this viability plan? And what do you want to see in that plan?

SEN. MCCONNELL: I think what we have to decide here in Congress is are we going to actually vote on something first. And it's clear to me the majority decided they were not ready to deal with this issue. Apparently, they were not happy with the presentations before their committees. And we'll just have to see how it develops.

Q Mr. Leader, many now consider you the leader of --

SEN. MCCONNELL: Let me do him and then I'll come right to you.

Q Thank you.

Q Okay. Mr. Leader, on card check, specifically, even if Senators Chambliss and Coleman prevail, you're at 42 Republicans. Senator Specter voted against the filibuster the last time you -- card check came up, so you're down to 41. Do you think you can hold a filibuster on the --

SEN. MCCONNELL: Yeah, I'm not going to --

Q Or are you going to have to negotiate?

SEN. MCCONNELL: We're going to do everything we can to defeat getting rid of the secret ballot in union elections, no matter what the number ends up being. And I think that Democrat members from right-to-work states are going to have to come to grips with the reality that this is a real vote, this could actually happen, and is that in the best interest of their states and the country.

So there's a new reality here on this vote. We're -- this is no longer just a check-the-box deal. We're talking about it -- the fact that it could potentially become law, Europeanize America, and put us into the same kind of difficult position Germany and France have been in. So this isn't going to be a -- you know, just a simple political exercise anymore for the Democrats from the right-to-work states.


Q Mr. Leader, many do consider you the leader of the party now. How do you perceive the message from the voters, and -- including your own closer-than-expected race, and how do you expect -- how do -- would you like to see the party retool itself going forward?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, first of all, I don't consider myself the leader of the Republican Party. I consider myself the leader of the Republican Party in Kentucky.

Second, let me hasten to remind you, my election was not close. I won by over 100,000 votes. I carried 87 out of 120 counties. It was the third-largest margin I've ever gotten. It was contested, but it was not close. And I know the difference between a close election and a not-close election. I won by 6 percentage points, and I believe Barack Obama won by, what -- 54, 4 -- 8. So it was not close.

The -- we will not have a -- one leader during this period. I had in to my office, for a meeting with Republican senators, Haley Barbour the other day. Haley was chairman of the Republican National Committee when we were last in this exact same position. And we discussed what we did in '93 and '94, collectively, Senate Republicans, House Republicans and the RNC.

And we are beginning a slow and deliberative process of finding our way back. Both parties have done this periodically. As I said, my reaction to the election was not one of despair, but one of understanding that we have to retool and come back. And there will be new leaders who develop over the next few years, and they could come from any variety of sources. We've got a lot of attractive governors, attractive senators and congressmen, and we'll work together to begin to -- the comeback.

Q Senator McConnell?


Q Can you describe how your relationship with Senator Reid has changed since the election?

SEN. MCCONNELL: My view is the election's over. And my relationship with Harry Reid is just fine. I mean, we've talked frequently this week. And I know there's been speculation to the contrary.

Election night, I quoted Winston Churchill. There are a lot of Churchill quotes that all of us like. My favorite one is, there's nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at and missed. They shot, and they missed.

But that was then and this is now, and my job is to lead -- Senate Republicans, and I can't do that without having a good relationship with the Democratic leader, and I do have a good relationship with him.

Q Senator?

SEN. MCCONNELL: That may be a good place to stop, yeah? Thank you very much.

Q Thanks a lot, Senator.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Happy Thanksgiving.

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