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Press COnference With Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell; Senator Lamar Alexander; and Senator John Ensign

Press Conference

Location: Washington, DC

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SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, good afternoon, everyone.

We just came from the Library of Congress, where the Republican senators had a retreat and had an opportunity -- which was very well attended, all but two members were there -- and it gave us an opportunity to begin to orient ourselves for the new -- for the new Congress. And we talked about a variety of different things, which I'll ask the chairman of the conference, Senator Alexander, to describe for you.

But let me just say that we may be 42 members, but we represent 50 percent of the American people. And we are going to have total unity in insisting on our opportunities to offer suggestions and amendments to legislation that comes along.

I think there is widespread feeling that some kind of -- for example, to deal with the biggest issue before us at the moment, I think there's a widespread feeling in our conference that some kind of stimulus package is a good idea for the country, but we do have suggestions. Some of them I've laid out; there are others that have been offered by other members. Among the things that I've mentioned is that we ought to go ahead and pass the omnibus appropriation bill, which is already vetted, already enjoys a bipartisan support, and spends money on a number of items that are likely to be recommended in the stimulus as well.

I also think we ought to take a look at the tax portion of the stimulus package, take a look at reducing the middle-class tax rate. It's currently 25 percent. I suggested to the new president and to others that we consider lowering that to 15 percent.

Finally, given the enormous debt that we have -- and further figures on that came out just today -- I think the American people might think it would make sense for our assistance to states to be a loan instead of a grant.

Even The Washington Post editorial page, which rarely applauds my ideas, has suggested today that that was not a bad idea and worth considering.

So we're going to be the respectful loyal opposition, offering suggestions and improvements as we see them, and expect to have an opportunity to offer our proposals on the floor.

With that, let me turn it over to our conference chair, Senator Alexander.

SEN. ALEXANDER: Thank you, Senator McConnell.

Republican senators spent seven hours today -- we just concluded -- working hard on the issue that's most important to the American people and therefore most important to us, which is how do we get the economy moving again?

We heard from three of our country's most distinguished economists: Martin Feldstein, who was President Reagan's chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers; Larry Lindsey, President Bush's first chairman; Peter Wallison.

We -- as the leader said, we want to be full participants in any kind of stimulus package that actually helps our economy grow, helps create jobs, helps stabilize housing. We're not interested in just spending money that we don't have, for projects that we don't have to have, at a time of such high deficits.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Questions of any of us?

Q Do you expect to be voting on Sunday?

SEN. MCCONNELL: (Chuckles.) Well, you'll have to ask Senator Reid. It's certainly his prerogative to have us vote on Sunday if he would like to. I suppose I would point out, whatever vote we could have on Sunday we could have on Monday. And it would probably be a bigger challenge for the majority to get an adequate number of votes on Sunday than for us. But that's really his call.

Q Senator McConnell, you lost seats and you lost the White House because the majority coalition that Ronald Reagan put together and that Newt Gingrich put together fell apart. Are there certain groups that you feel you need to reach out to at this point? And what are you going to do?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I -- you know, we've been doing the post- election analysis for a couple of months. And I think there are a lot of -- there's a good deal of consensus that it is very challenging to win an election when you have an unpopular president and a bad economy. And I think that certainly contributed to the setbacks that we had this year.

Q Senator?


Q Senator McConnell, does the Republican Caucus intend to filibuster the Lilly Ledbetter pay bill this time around? And given the fact that there are significantly fewer of you this time, can you maintain it if you do?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, the bill that you've mentioned is about the statute of limitations in certain kinds of lawsuits.

And there was substantial opposition. As you know, every controversial measure in the Senate -- at least in the time that I've been here -- has been subjected to a 60-vote threshold. Any one senator -- any one senator of a hundred, I would remind all of you, can guarantee that we have to get 60 votes. I can't imagine that the Ledbetter legislation would not be subject to 60 votes; but that's routine, not unusual.

Q Senator McConnell, I want to ask you about Mr. Burris from Illinois. Leader Reid today said basically that once he has his paperwork in order, his presentation papers, if he does, then this would be a matter for the whole Senate to decide. And he even said in his statement after they met today that he was encouraging Mr. Burris to reach out to you personally and the Republican conference. I wanted to find out what your position was on voting in the Senate to install Mr. Burris.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Yeah, I think the unanimous Republican view is that this is a mess -- an ethically tainted, challenged mess -- and that Senator Durbin's initial suggestion was the best one. Senator Durbin himself said after this matter arose that the best way to pick the new senator from Illinois would be through a special election. I think I'm safe in saying that every Republican senator thinks that's a good idea.

Q But if --

SEN. MCCONNELL: But you're asking me hypotheticals. We don't know how this is going --

Q (Off mike) -- they've basically said no to a special election.


Q They're not going to have that, and that this matter is going to end up in the Rules Committee, and possibly on the floor.


Q And I'd like to know if your members or you are going to vote to install this man, or if you're going to reject him because of who appointed him.

SEN. MCCONNELL: I know you'd like to know that. What I'm prepared to tell you is that --

Q (Off mike.)

SEN. MCCONNELL: -- that every member of the Republican conference believes there ought to be a special election in Illinois.


Q On the question of voting -- (off mike) -- the lands bill, and Senator Coburn and Senator Reid, in the new bipartisan spirit of the 111th Congress, this seems an awful lot like the 110th -- in fact, almost exactly like the 110th. And I wonder, regardless of which side is to blame, are you all getting off on a bad foot here in the 111th Congress, this being the first --

SEN. MCCONNELL: Over the lands bill? No, I don't think so. (Chuckles.) You know, I mean, we have members who feel strongly about certain issues on both sides. I think, for example, on the Democratic side, Senator Feingold frequently has strong opinions about things that may be at variance with a significant number of his conference.

I mean, none of us take it personally and none of us believe it's inappropriate for members to exercise whatever rights they have. I wouldn't read any major meaning into the fact that Senator Coburn has had a well-established, long-standing objection to this package, which he laid out last year and continues to hold.

Q That's what I mean, not that he's not allowed to exercise his prerogative, but the return of this sort of acrimonious, well, "We're going to vote on Sunday," and putting each other on the spot.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I mean, you all are in the acrimony business. (Laughs.) I mean, to me -- to me, the fact that one senator objects to a particular bill is not particularly unusual. Now, I know it's a slow news time, and maybe you've got to write a story about this but, you know, I --

(Cross talk.)

SEN. MCCONNELL: The fact -- (laughs) -- I thought you'd have enough to write about Illinois, without this. Look, it's not unusual for a senator on either side to have a problem with a bill. It happens, gosh, on almost a weekly basis. The majority leader, if he wants to, can have us voting on Sunday. That's really his call. But with all due respect, all of these bills that are in that package, in the grand scheme of things, what we spent our day on today, as Senator Alexander pointed out, was the biggest issue in the country, which is the state of our economy and what is appropriate to do about it.

Q On that issue, Senator McConnell, when the next administration -- well, I should say, the next administration is expected to seek the second tranche of the TARP funds. Is that something -- do you want to see that request come with restrictions? (Inaudible) -- for the bill that has restrictions on the use of the money, that has -- foreclosure mitigation is included in that bill. What kinds of things would you need to see in it and what are changes --

SEN. MCCONNELL: I'm going to ask any of my colleagues who want to to comment on that, but obviously that was among the matters we discussed today. It's a very significant issue. Everyone expects that there will be a request by the new administration.

I don't know if anybody would like to make some comments on it or not.

SEN. ENSIGN: Take a shot at this and express my own opinion on this. First of all, I repeat that I thought the Bush administration made a big mistake of opening up the TARP funds to the auto industry, because other industries may step forward and try to get a bailout from the TARP funds. So I think having restrictions on the TARP funds I think is a good idea.

The housing industry is really the underlying problem in the economy, and that's what we should be focusing on. That was the original purpose of the TARP funds, was to get some of the toxic assets off the books of the financial institutions, the mortgage- backed securities.

It wasn't used for that. Many believe in the -- certainly the economists today believe that that was a huge mistake, not using it to buy up some of those mortgage-backed securities, and -- myself included -- believe that we should have targeted, going forward, making sure that the TARP funds actually try to stabilize the financial institutions by getting rid of some of these toxic assets in the future.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Anyone else? Okay.

Q (Off mike) -- Senator Ensign or Senator McConnell, the Republican Party lost support amongst Hispanic voters in the last election.


Q Was there any discussion today about how to reach out to Hispanic voters and maybe, you know, heal some of the damage that was caused --

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