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Press Conference With Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell; Senator Saxby Chambliss; Senator John Barrasso

Press Conference

Location: Washington, DC

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SEN. MCCONNELL: Good afternoon, everyone.

Had a chance over the recess, along with Senator Chambliss, Senator Barrasso and Senator Risch, who is not back from Idaho yet, to go to the Middle East.

The principal places that we visited that you'd obviously have an interest in are Iraq and Afghanistan. Had a chance to meet with General Odierno in Iraq and General McKiernan in Afghanistan. And I must say, I think that we're on the right track in both places.

Clearly, the surge in Iraq has made a positive difference. Senator Chambliss has been there seven times and, I think, can give you a better perspective, probably, than any of us. It'd been three years since I had been there. But there was a noticeable difference and improvement that has been written about.

Over in Afghanistan, I think the surge the president has ordered is the right thing to do. This is clearly an area where we need to keep the pressure on to prevent another attack on the homeland. And I think the president's strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, which, from my point of view, is hardly distinguishable from the strategy of the previous administration, is the right thing to do and gives us the best chance to avoid having another attack here at home.

The final observation I would make before turning it over to Senator Chambliss is there was one kind of unified concern wherever we went, including some moderate Arab states, and that is Iran and a widespread concern about Iran having a nuclear-weapon capability; deep concern about it.

It strikes me that old enemies have a common concern. Reminds me of the old saying we've all heard about the enemy: My enemy is my friend. And I think the number-one security concern, of not only Israel but the moderate Arab states, is Iran and their intentions and the problems they're causing, both with Hezbollah and Hamas as well as obviously the frightening potential that they could become a country with nuclear weapons.

With that, let me turn it over to Senator Chambliss.

SEN. CHAMBLISS: Well, thank you, Leader.

And I would concur in what Senator McConnell says about the concern of the moderate Arab countries that we went to, as well as Israel, where the focus is, we cannot afford for Iran to be nuclear weaponized.

As Leader said, this was my seventh trip to Iraq. Stretches back over several years. And there's been dramatic improvement every time I've been back there. This time probably was the most significant time obviously.

It's been about a year, almost a year and a half since I've been there. And we were able this time to go out into the rural part of Baghdad. It was not too far outside the city limits of Baghdad but to another community, Sabah al-Bur, where we had a chance to walk in a market, albeit certainly we had security present.

But on any other trip I've ever been over there, there was not the freedom and the confidence on the part of the military that we'd be safe and secure anywhere outside of Baghdad. And certainly we never felt threatened, never felt in danger of any sort.

And that's a good feeling to have in Iraq. Because even though we've got some incidents of violence that continued to take place, from time to time, it's not near the significance obviously that we've seen since the surge began and wound its way to a success.

There was one interesting anecdote that I'll give you. We, in walking through the market, met a number of children, who were out of school that day, who came up to us. And in the tradition of U.S. soldiers around the world, from a historical perspective, all the kids wanted candy. And they didn't confine it to the soldiers.

They saw these guys in civilian clothes and knew there must be something about them that meant they had candy too.

And three of these young kids came up to me as we first got out of our vehicles and started walking around, and I asked all of them about being in school. And one of them held up three fingers, one four and one five, to indicate what grade they were in. And the little boy who said he was in the fourth grade said, "We need books."

So it's an indication that things at least are returning to normalcy, from the standpoint of children being back in school, a safer place in which families can reside. But at the same time, we've got to realize that it's going to be a significant period of time before we ultimately prevail in Iraq.

And frankly, there's some concern by both the military and the civilians in Iraq about the -- removing all combat troops by June 30th, as well as trying to be out in August of 2000 -- next year.

So they are good things that are going on there, but there is significant concern that remains in Iraq, though we certainly are headed in the right direction.

Afghanistan's an entirely different story. We're going to be in Afghanistan for a long time to come. The military's doing a great job. We're going to prevail militarily in Afghanistan. But as General McKiernan said, there's not going to be a military solution in Afghanistan; it's going to have to be a political solution. And when you have an economy that is struggling like the economy in Afghanistan, it is going to make for a very, very long haul.

With that, I'll turn to Senator Barrasso.

SEN. BARRASSO: Well, thank you very much.

This was my second trip to Afghanistan as well as my second trip to Iraq. I went to Iraq -- it was Thanksgiving of 2007 -- along with Senator McCain, had a chance then to visit with Wyoming soldiers. And I did the same thing this time, visited with young men and women from Wyoming, because that's what I want to hear. I want to hear from the men and women in the field, as well as from the generals.

What I heard from the Wyoming soldiers is, things are significantly better. One of the soldiers -- it was his second deployment, and I asked, "Is there anything you need in terms of supplies, in terms of equipment, in terms of protective devices?" They have everything they need, and he -- they both said they had everything that they needed in terms of what the military is providing for them.

The young -- one young man, Ryan (sp), from Cody, Wyoming, had been there twice. He said, "Things are measurably better this time." And it seemed that way to me as well.

Afghanistan: Again, I had a chance to visit with a few people from Wyoming, and there are significant challenges in Afghanistan. They will continue. In testimony in the Armed Services Committee last year, one of our own leaders has said, right now in Afghanistan, about 30 percent is under the control of President Karzai, about 10 percent under the Taliban, and about 60 percent -- 60 percent -- under the tribal leaders. And if you've been to Afghanistan, you know the geography of the place. You know the difficulty -- I mean, these are two very different places, Iraq being desert, Afghanistan being mountainous; very challenging terrain.

We did have an opportunity while we were there to visit with President Karzai in Kabul in Afghanistan, as well as visit with three of the candidates who will be opposing him in the elections coming up this year, and had a chance to visit with the -- for the need to have free and fair elections that are also credible elections in terms of the turnout, in terms of the number of people participating, so that no matter what happens with the outcome, people can look at this and say, "Yes, they were free elections, fair elections and credible elections, and this is the leader of the country."

So with that -- Leader?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Yeah. Any questions for anyone?

Q Senator McConnell?


Q Regarding Iraq, do you think Christopher Hill is a good ambassador for Iraq? Will you invoke cloture on that?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I haven't decided how I'm going to vote on that, but there are some objections, as you know. Senator Brownback feels strongly about it. I believe Senator McCain does as well. And that's why we're going to have some discussion of his credentials and the appropriateness of his being the Iraq ambassador. I don't know whether either of my colleagues have thoughts they want to add.

SEN. CHAMBLISS: Only thing I would add to it, I'm going to vote to invoke cloture. We need an ambassador in Iraq. We need it desperately. The military is doing a great job, as we alluded to earlier. The charge' is doing a good job of filling in. But we need leadership from a State Department standpoint in Iraq, and whatever comes out of Christopher Hill, we need to make sure that's done quickly.

Q If cloture is invoked, would you expect to have to use the whole 30 hours to agree to this?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, as you know, any one senator can make you run the clock for a while. Just how strongly some of my members who don't like the nomination feel about it we'll find out. But I couldn't tell you right now.

Q Senator McConnell?


Q (Off mike) -- the last two weeks, wiretaps of members of Congress. Particularly, there was an attempt by NSA in 2006 to wiretap a member that was in the Middle East. You know, as a(n) institutional risk, does this concern you, that the executive branch has been wiretapping members and attempting to wiretap them? And do you think maybe that's something that the Senate should, you know, look at?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Even though I was out of the country, I didn't think I was totally out of touch, but I have not followed that. And so I think I'll not comment on it until I know more about it.


Q Senator McConnell? (Off mike) -- defense budget cuts and changes in -- (off mike) -- that you see -- (off mike)?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, it certainly raises some concerns. And Senator Chambliss may want to address that. He's on the Armed Services Committee and, I know, had some conversations related to the secretary of Defense's recommendations. You want to --

SEN. CHAMBLISS: Sure. I ought to -- well, I don't think there's anybody on the Armed Services Committee who doesn't agree with the secretary when he says we need changes in the acquisition process and that it can be improved, and that we need to make significant changes there. But trying to change everything in the middle of the stream I'm not sure is the right way to go.

Obviously, the F-22 is of significant concern to me. I've been a strong proponent of it. I'm not happy about those changes that the secretary's proposing. There are others who are concerned about the Future Combat System and the role that that weapon system -- or that program plays with the Army.

But the fact is we don't have the money that all of us would like to have to spend on all of these programs. And we are still in the process of analyzing what the secretary had to say and trying to get into the details of that budget.

But suffice it to say that some of the proposals that are in the secretary's proposed budget even fly in the face of the legislation that Senator Levin and Senator McCain have introduced, and of which I'm a supporter.

So I think there's going to be an awful lot of discussion between now and the time that budget comes forward, both from the standpoint of trying to figure out what the details in that budget are and then secondly what type of arguments are going to be made relative to protection of weapons systems that the various branches feel they need in spite of the secretary making a very closely held decision that we no longer need.

Q How does this fly in the face of legislation? Can you give an example of this?

SEN. CHAMBLISS: Well, yeah. There's a GAO report on the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35, which is very critical of the process that the F-35 is going through right now, from the standpoint of being still in the developmental stage. And yet the secretary's budget proposes to go ahead with procuring F-35s while it's still in the developmental stage. That is contrary to what the McCain-Levin legislation calls for, and it also flies in the face of what GAO said in their very critical report of the program. And that's just one example.

Q Senator McConnell, President Obama called today on his Cabinet to find $100 million in cuts. (Off mike) -- big difference, but is it a step in the right direction?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, just to put $100 million in context, that's what we spend per day on the interest on the stimulus package that we passed a month ago. I'm happy that the president's trying to save $100 million. I'd feel a lot better about this if he were to endorse something like the Gregg-Conrad proposal, which would give us a chance to actually have an impact on the unfunded liabilities that are staring the next generation in the face: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

I had, as some of you may recall, a -- what I thought was a good conversation with the president before he took office and with the chief of staff about this.

They seemed to me at that time to be willing to go that route, at least for Social Security. And if you're not familiar with the bill, basically, it sets up a base-closing type procedure that actually guarantees that you get a result.

And if we really want to do something serious about the deficit, entitlement reform, which is heavy lifting and runs the risk of, you know, being unpopular -- I would just like to see the president use some of his popularity to do something serious about spending.

As we said during the budget debate -- (chuckles) -- that budget spends too much, taxes too much and borrows too much. And it's beginning to resonate with the American people. That was probably at the root of the tea parties last week, and I think it's the beginning of a movement of reaction and -- (chuckles) -- revulsion to the spending spree that we've been on here in the first two months.

So if the president really wants to do something about cutting spending, the way to do it is Conrad-Gregg, at least for Social Security. Let's do something serious about the long-term unfunded liabilities we have in this country.

Q Senator McConnell, was there any part of your trip that would inform amendments to the supplemental at this point, that you know of?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, there are going to be a number of amendments to the supplemental. Unrelated to the trip, I would just say I know I speak for the three of us, and a whole lot of other people, that closing Guantanamo -- there's $80 million in the supplemental, as I understand it, to close Guantanamo. It does not answer the question, what are we going to do with them? What are we going to do with them? The previous president said he wanted to close Guantanamo, as well. The reason he didn't put a deadline on it is because the question is: What are you going to do with them?

We had a vote on the Senate floor on an amendment that I offered a couple of years ago, 94-to-three against putting them in the United States. All the Europeans who've been criticizing us for Guantanamo are apparently largely uninterested in taking any of them. I think France said they'd take one. What are we going to do with these dangerous people? Guantanamo, I would argue, is a pretty good place for them. We've had over 800 people there, detained over the years. Not a one has escaped to go out and kill Americans. Not a one.

So you know, I think there's going to be a big debate -- Senator Chambliss, I know, is interested in this; others are -- a big debate over the Guantanamo issue. That did not come up on our trip.

But it does remind you, when you're a country, like Afghanistan, that has a large complement of al Qaeda, or a country like Iran (sic), where al Qaeda's still operating in the north, up around Mosul -- it does remind you of what these folks would like to do again right here in the United States.

Q Senator McConnell --

Q Senator McConnell --


Q There's been a lot of talk about the president's first hundred days, and I'm wondering if you could take a look at the Republican leadership over the first hundred days of the Obama presidency, and what would you say were the key points, what you accomplished? How would you look in the mirror and assess that?

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, we don't have a majority. It's very difficult to pass legislation. What we've done in the Senate is offer a variety of options on every bill that's come up, things that we think would improve the legislation and move it in a more centrist direction.

Most of us are pretty comfortable with what the president's doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. But on the domestic front, we do not think that it's a good idea to be spending at this level. And most of us would be willing -- as I said earlier, at the risk of being redundant, would be willing to tackle serious long-term deficit problems through a process to do something about entitlement spending, which is going to swamp the country.

So we're prepared -- if the administration moved to the middle, prepared to move with them to do something serious about the spending problems in this country.

Q Mr. Leader, where do you stand on --

Q Senator McConnell, given your comments about Guantanamo, can you address the release of the interrogation memos, the so-called torture memos, that the president ordered released on Thursday?

SEN. MCCONNELL: I could, but Senator Chambliss is on the Intelligence Committee.

(To Senator Chambliss.) Would you like to take a crack at it?

SEN. CHAMBLISS: Well, it seems that this administration looks for every opportunity they can to seek to embarrass the previous administration. I think this is one time they really overstepped their bounds. What I heard back home over the weekend, after the release of those memos, is that by gosh, that's the type of information that we should have been able to get from individuals.

And while we didn't want to see them tortured, we do think that extreme measures sometimes need to be taken to get information.

Well, when you look at those memos, they are very carefully worded, to make sure that only in extreme situations and in fact only in extreme situations, where different forms of interrogation methods used. And let's don't forget. And the American people haven't forgotten this, but I think the Democrats have. That is that we have not suffered another domestic attack since September 11th.

So whatever the previous administration did, under the guise of the legal opinions that the Justice Department issues, it's worked. And the American people have a great appreciation for that. And I think it's unfortunate that those memos were leaked out that were turned over to the press in the way that they were.

There are some things that, when you operate in the cloak-and- dagger world of the intelligence community, that need to remain within the intelligence community. And I think it's unfortunate that those memos were put out there.

SEN. MCCONNELL: We were talking on the way up. I believe the president's out at the CIA right now. My guess is, that's a morale- boosting visit, because the agency had to be, you would think, upset and chagrined about the decision that Senator Chambliss was just addressing.


Q Mr. Leader -- (off mike) -- do you expect Republicans to end up helping pass it? (Off mike.)

SEN. MCCONNELL: You know, there are going to be amendments. I think it will take several days. But I expect it will pass at some point.


Q Do you see any particular amendment you would like to -- (off mike)?

SEN. MCCONNELL: No. I just got back. We haven't gotten together. I hear there will be amendments. And that's the way the Senate operates. So we'll take a look at them.

One more, if there is one.


Q Senator, Senator Reid today -- (off mike). Do you have any response to that? (Off mike.)

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, I mean, we have an obligation to take a look at the nominees that are sent up.

And I don't think it's written anywhere that every single nominee goes through on a voice vote.

And we -- I think we've demonstrated that we've not been trying to slow down nominees. We've opposed some of them, but they've still been confirmed. I don't think we're doing anything that's keeping the administration from getting up and getting running.

If anything, they've been incredibly slow to get nominees up here. I don't know what kind of vetting process they're going through, but I hear it is quite complex; that a number of people have pulled themselves back in the process of going through it. They'd be better served, frankly, to get more nominees up here more rapidly and not worry about what might happen to them when they got here, because I don't think a single one of them has been defeated.

Thank you.

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