An Interview with Mitch McConnell

Last Thursday, HUMAN EVENTS Editor Jed Babbin interviewed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) about the Senate’s overnight Iraq debate, the Flying Imams amendment and the new $10-per-cigar tax (a subject near and dear to Babbin’s heart).  Here’s a transcript of the interview.

(JB): Sen. McConnell, let’s start with some of the craziness of the past few days…

Sen. Mitch McConnell (MM): [Laughs] We’ve had a bit of it.

JB: Was anything accomplished in that whole long night?

MM: Well, it was theater, and bad theater at that. And as you noticed at the end, we lost four Republicans, and we’ve actually lost more Republicans than that on earlier Iraq amendments this year.

JB: Sure.

MM: So, if the goal here was to stampede a large number of Republicans to support something like the Levin amendment — which basically has a surrender date in it — it seemed to me it was actually counterproductive. I think it was all for the purpose of feeding their left-wing base. As you know, MoveOn.org had a rally out here right in front of the Capitol at 8:30 that night. And it was absolutely pointless. I did notice there were a lot of sleepy people around the next day, including me…

JB: [Laughs]

MM: But I think it was completely and totally pointless.

JB: Well, what’s next on Iraq?

MM:  In a pique they shelved the whole [Defense Authorization] bill.  Not an unimportant bill. It has pay-raises for the military in it. It has these MRAPs —

JB: Yeah… mine-resistant armored vehicles…

MM: These vehicles that make it less likely our people get killed and maimed.

JB: The bill also’s got Wounded Warrior on it. 

MM: Right. We haven’t failed to pass a Defense Authorization Bill in 45 years.  Leading me to observe that — you, I’m sure, saw the Zogby poll yesterday — They’re down to 14 percent [approval in the polls]. Like, twenty percent below the President, who’s not exactly looking at good numbers these days. Talk about the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. I think that this first six months has got to be quite embarrassing to them.

JB: Well 14 percent has to tell you something.

MM: I think they’re at least as bad off as we were a year ago or worse.

JB: I thought that Rassmussen — was it Gallup or Rassmusen? — who said this is the lowest we’ve ever polled?

MM: They were lower.

JB: So —

MM: They really had a choice at the beginning of the year.  They could move to the center — where they could have done some things and sort of checked the box that they actually could be a part of governing — or they could stay to the hard left and not get anything of the Senate, or on the rare occasion they do, it gets vetoed by the president… They’ve chosen a much more partisan route. And I don’t think, you know, it’s not worked either way. I’m told that the Democratic leadership was booed by Moveon.org, so they’re not happy —

JB: Right.

MM: — because the Democratic candidates had said, "Elect us and we’ll end the war," and they clearly can’t do that. The surveys indicate that the broad public is disapproving of them as well, and there are a reasonable number of Independent-type voters who are not particularly ideologically driven, who just want to see us do things — you know, accomplish things. Those people aren’t happy too, so they’re losing both ways — they’re not only not satisfying the hard left, but they’re disappointing the Independents who took a chance on them last November.

JB: Do you see a correlation between this 14 percent number and the people who are actually out to withdraw from Iraq regardless? I mean, is there a correlation in your mind between their poll numbers now and they only people who are left to support them — the Cindy Sheehans, the Michael Moores —

MM: But even those people are not happy with them. The point is the hard left is not happy with them because they over-promised them —

JB: Sure —

MM: "Elect us, we end the war" — but they clearly can’t do that all by themselves.

JB: Right.

MM: The Independent-type voters that they carried overwhelmingly last November — in fact, that’s perhaps why we lost — they’re mad at them because they want… they haven’t done anything — ‘anything’ meaning not just on the war, but on anything.

JB: Yep.

MM: So, it strikes me that they’re losing both ways, and they’d have been a lot smarter.  Jed, [let’s] just to try to do some governing. We haven’t passed a single appropriations bill yet in the Senate. That’s the fundamental work of government. There are 13 of them. It may not be very glamorous. But that is the basic operation of it. We’re almost to the August recess: not one single appropriation.

JB: Now, you all are not going to have a whole lot of days left when you come back after August. Now how’s is all this going to get done?

MM:  It’s going to be a rather long year.  Everything in the Senate takes longer. And you’re right, we’re not… There are only so many days in a week, and we’re not going to be here in August. We never are, and frankly we probably shouldn’t be. But I think they’ve got it pretty balled up.

JB: Let me pass on to a couple of other things before I get to the real reason for my visit. One of the most serious things that I have heard is that the Democrats from the House are trying to strip the Peter King amendment in the Homeland Security bill. My understanding of that amendment is that is would give legal protection, effective immunity, for people who are trying to report suspicious conduct to airline security people. What’s your view on that, how’s it going to play out?

MM: Well it’s a very good amendment, it ought to become law. It had bipartisan support on the floor of the House. But I think what you’ve heard, and what we’ve heard, is just that it may be knocked out on some technicality. I think it’ll be reoffered in the Senate on a bipartisan basis to something else, if they do that. So we think — I think and others think — that it’s a very important position and it needs to become law.

JB: So that is one of your priorities —

MM: Yeah.

JB: Let me pass on to something that’s a little more light-hearted. But it really strikes home to me.  I think it was Mark Twain who said that, “If I cannot smoke cigars in Heaven” [MM laughs] “then I shall not go.”

MM: [Laughing] Ten dollars a cigar, how do you like that?

JB: I don’t like that a whole heck of a lot, sir! Where is that going to go, is that actually going to get to the president’s desk?

MM: It might.

JB: Wow.

MM: It might.  And the most absurd part of it, we were just discussing — ten dollars per cigar. It is also a dramatic expansion of a program passed about 10 years ago, that was supposed to be just for low income people — kids.

JB: Right. The SCHIP.

MM: And I think the Democratic strategy’s clear.   They want to take that, and expand it. I’m told that the Heritage — Heritage has some kind of study that says, if this bill were to go through the way the Democrats are proposing, some people who pay the alternate, minimum tax — Did you see that study? — would also be eligible for government health care. So obviously, its visions expand it to beyond poverty-stricken families. We think their goal, when they couldn’t get Hillary-care, when they couldn’t get it all swallowed in one big bite, is to expand SCHIP upward and Medicare downward, until you have basically a government-controlled, single-payer health system. The president has indicated yesterday — you saw that he’s going to veto this bill.

JB: Yes.

MM: When it comes up in the Senate there will be two or more alternative approaches offered. I’m not optimistic that either will pass, but I hope either of them — or a collection of people that voted for them — will amount to enough to sustain a presidential veto, because we don’t think that the children’s health care program designed for low-income families’ children should be used as a backdoor for a single-payer national health care system. So the president is — has said publicly he’s going to veto it. Our efforts are going to be to sustain that veto, if in fact that ends up on his desk.

JB: In terms of some of the other things you say being snuck through bit by bit, there are some rumors around that the Democrats are going to go back to taking some parts off the comprehensive immigration reform bill, and try to slide them through. Is that something you expect?

MM: Well I wouldn’t — I wouldn’t object to certain parts of it myself…

JB: Sure.

MM: Because, as you know, Jed, from looking at that issue, there were parts of that bill that were quite good. So two can play that game. If they want to try to do the part of it that many of us had voted against the bill over: um, we might well do the border security part, we might well do the workplace verification part, we might well do the getting rid of the green card lottery part — the parts that I expect you like.

JB: Yes.

MM: I mean, the green card lottery — we got rid of that… That eliminates current law which allows somebody’s second cousin anywhere in the world as good a chance as the next Albert Eisntein. So, I mean, two can play that game. You may see the good parts of that bill offered by us, to other things.

JB:  Sen. McConnell, thank you very much.  You’ve been generous with your time.

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