CNN "State of the Union with John King" - Transcript
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KING: Six months into the Obama presidency, Republicans are intensifying their criticism of his domestic agenda. They say the president's proposal for overhauling health care is too expensive for a country still deep in recession and gives the government too much power. They also call the $787 billion stimulus plan that Mr. Obama said would create new jobs a dismal failure.
With us now is the number one Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Mr. Leader, thanks for joining us.
MCCONNELL: Glad to be with you.
KING: I just heard -- you just heard the Speaker. I want to pick up with what she said. She says a public option in health care reform is, in her view, non-negotiable. Can Senate Republicans sign onto a plan that includes a public option?
MCCONNELL: I think I can pretty safely say there aren't any Senate Republicans who think a government plan is a good idea. We have 1,300 health insurance companies now, robust competition among them. We know that if we create a government plan, there won't be any more private health insurance companies and there won't be any competition.
We have a good example of that, John, already, in the automobile industry. The government is now running GM and Chrysler, and you know, in Louisville, they're making Fords, Ford vehicles. And the CEO of Ford called me up recently and said, The good news is people seem to like the fact that we haven't taken any government money and we're doing reasonably well, given the slowdown, the recession that we're in, but our problem is financing our cars because the government is backing up GMAC and Ford's financing arm.
So that's exactly what would happen in the health care system, and I think people on my side don't like it. And you know, it's interesting, the Democrats are having a hard time selling it to their own members, as well.
KING: Let's talk about another issue on the table. You say public option a non-starter with Senate Republicans. How to pay for this is another big thing. As you know, the House bill has a surtax on wealthy Americans. I know you don't like that. One of the things they're talking about in the Finance Committee, where a few of your members involved in the negotiations, trying to find bipartisan ground, is this so-called Cadillac insurance plan tax, that you would tax the most lucrative insurance policies that give way above average benefits. You OK with that?
MCCONNELL: Well, some of our members think that that's a reasonable way to go. But if you're talking about paying for it, let's look at the plans that are actually out there, John, the House bill and the Senate health committee bill. They pay for it by cutting doctors, cutting hospitals, and raising taxes on small business. Those are very difficult pay-fors (ph), and they're having a hard time selling it to their own members. The only thing bipartisan about the measures so far is the opposition to them.
KING: That's an interesting way to put it. Help me understand Senator Grassley's role, Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, senior Republican on the Finance Committee. He and a few other Republicans are in the negotiations. What has he promised you? Is a bipartisan bill three or four or five Republicans? Or has Senator Grassley expressly promised you that he would not sign onto anything in committee that can't get a good chunk of the Republican caucus?
MCCONNELL: Well, what Senator Grassley is doing, along with Senator Enzi, our top Republican on the health committee, are negotiating with the Democrats, Senator Baucus and some others, in that effort to come up with a truly bipartisan bill. What he does is report those discussions back to us. All of our membership is in a meeting every Wednesday afternoon in which Senator Grassley and Senator Enzi give them a rundown. They -- Senator Grassley and Senator Enzi give me a report on a daily basis, so they...
KING: And what is the extent of their promise to you?
MCCONNELL: Well, we have to see what they come up with. I mean, I think they -- I don't believe either one of them are going to sign onto a package that the vast majority of our members think is a bad idea. Our idea of bipartisanship, in the end, is not just talking, it's what do you do? And what kind of proposal is it? What is the policy?
KING: Well, on that point, I want to step back in time. After the election, as President-elect Obama was preparing to come to Washington, you gave a big speech at the National Press Club, where you laid out your views on what was likely to happen. And among the things you said was this.
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MCCONNELL: We fully expect to be a full partner in developing major health care reform.
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KING: Might sound a little cynical, but how's that going?
MCCONNELL: Well, I think we will be, at a certain point.
KING: You will be. You're not now.
MCCONNELL: Look, John, what's happened now is they can't sell it to their own members. As I said a minute ago, the only thing bipartisan so far is the opposition to it. At some point, they understand that in order to comfort their own members and to have broad support among the American people, it will need to be bipartisan. So far, they have produced a measure that they cannot sell even to their own members.
KING: So how do we do that? How do we change the process? In the past, if we go back to George H.W. Bush, when you had the budget crisis, he had the big summit at Camp David. Some say it cost him the presidency because he agreed to raise taxes. What's the circuit breaker? Can you offer one to the president, say, Mr. President, here's my hand as the leader of Senate Republicans, let's start over or start somewhere and let's do something different? What would it be?
MCCONNELL: Well, I think starting over would be a good idea. I mean, we've basically been negotiating off a set of Democrat-preferred options, shall I say. Now, we'd like to start over with a genuine bipartisan approach. And let me give you the kinds of things we ought to be able to do.
We know that we're losing billions of dollars every year in junk lawsuits against doctors and hospitals. We don't see any kind of legal abuse reform in any of these proposals. Everybody's excited about prevention. We've seen the example of the Safeway company, where the CEO there has incentivized his employees to target their own decisions -- quit smoking, fight obesity, check your cholesterol, your high blood pressure, exercise. They've actually incentivized their employees to engage in that kind of behavior and brought down the cost of their health insurance.
In addition to that, we know we have an access problem because of the rise in cost. Cost and access are the two big problems. Equalize the tax code. Make it possible for an individual who purchased insurance to deduct that cost, just like a corporation can in providing health insurance.
Those are the kinds of things that would dramatically move us in the right direction. And remember that we have the finest health care in the world now. We don't want to scrap the excellent quality that we have as we move forward.
KING: I want to ask you to watch me as I walk up to the magic wall because I want to talk about the political calculation of this debate as we do this because you mentioned we have the finest health care. If you look at the polls right now, 55 percent of the American people say we need a great deal of reform, 40 percent say we need some reform.
I want to look at this as we go forward. These are the Senate Republican seats up. The red states are the Senate Republicans up in the next election. And I want to circle a few because I just want to say -- when you see these states -- these are where you have members up next year, the states I've circled. And I want to come forward to the presidential election we just had. In those states there, and then add New Hampshire into that, states won by President Obama.
I want to understand whether you think it's helpful, when you look at this map and think about the calculation in the year ahead, to have some of your own members and leading voices in the party, like Senator DeMint in the Senate says, you know, This is Obama's Waterloo. He says, If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo, it will break him. And then Bill Kristol writing in "The Weekly Standard," a conservative paper, says, "Some Republicans will now be tempted, because Obama's back on his heels a bit, to cut a deal, to try to find a compromise." He says, "My advice, for what it's worth, resist the temptation. This is no time to pull punches. Go for the kill."
As the leader of Senate Republicans, as the highest elected Republican in the country, does Mitch McConnell think that saying, Let's break him and go for the kill, is constructive language?
MCCONNELL: I think what we ought to be doing is trying to fix the problem. The election's 15 months away. It'll take care of itself. What we ought to be doing now is concentrating on the health care issue. I don't know a single member of my conference in the Senate, not one, who doesn't want to pass health care reform. We ought to concentrate on trying to fix this -- fix this, do it right. This is a huge, huge issue that effects 16 percent of our economy. If we get it fixed right, the politics will take care of itself next year in the election.
KING: Can I translate that into saying that that language is not helpful? If you want to create -- if you want the American people to think you're serious and that you would like to do a bipartisan bill, is language like that, Go for the kill, This will break him, counterproductive?
MCCONNELL: Look, I can only speak for myself. What I think is the right for Senate Republicans to be doing is to try to get health care fixed, to do it the right way for the American people, and let the politics take care of itself next year.
KING: You were here at the two-month mark of the Obama administration, and I asked you for a report card. And this is what you said.
MCCONNELL: I'm disappointed after two months. The president has not governed in the middle, as I had hoped he would.
KING: Six months now, any different? Is your phone ringing more often?
MCCONNELL: Well, I would -- I think that was pretty accurate for now, too.
MCCONNELL: You know, the president's trying to do most of these things on the far left. I think the stimulus was a big mistake. I think we can, you know, fairly safely declare it now a failure. It was sold to us as something that was going to jolt the economy, that was going to hold unemployment to 8 percent. Unemployment's going over 10 percent.
We're spending $100 million a day in interest on the national debt. The deficit this year's going to be $1.8 trillion. To put that in context, we're going to have a bigger deficit this year than the last five years together. The budget that they passed, looking to the future, doubles the national debt in five and triples it in ten.
I think the administration's off on the wrong foot. I'd like to see him come back to the political middle, meet us there, and solve these problems for the American people.
KING: We're out of time, but let me ask you quickly, again, as the nation's highest elected Republican leader -- "Anchorage Daily News" here -- it is Sarah Palin's last day as governor. Does she have a national future in your party?
MCCONNELL: Boy, I don't think we've seen the last of Sarah Palin. She excites an awful lot of members of my party and they're anxious to see what she's going to do next, and so am I.
KING: Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, thank you for your time this morning.
MCCONNELL: Thank you.