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Crossfire

Who Does the Senate Majority Leader Want to Win the GOP Presidential Nomination?

Aired February 9, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. TRENT LOTT (R-MS), MAJORITY LEADER: Here's a man that has the character, the integrity, the leadership, and the experience as an executive to be president of the United States. And that man is George W. Bush.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: If George W. Bush is so great, why hasn't Trent Lott endorsed him yet? And what does the Senate leader really think of his colleague, John McCain?

Tonight, those questions and more for the Senate's top Republican.

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Mary Matalin. In the crossfire, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, majority leader of the United States Senate.

MATALIN: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE. George W. Bush's flagging fortunes got a lift yesterday.

A Delaware primary victory brought decent press, 12 more delegates, and relief on his right flank with news that Steve Forbes is dropping out after his abysmal third-place finish.

In combating his left flank assault, Bush received support from another of McCain's Senate colleague. Well, not just another colleague. The big dog himself, Majority Leader Trent Lott, praised Bush's integrity and experience, but did not outright endorse the governor.

Meanwhile, off the political trail and back on the policy front, the Hill declared the president's budget D.O.A, promising a dust-up in the nation's capital.

So tonight, politics and policy from the perspective of the GOP leadership. Why are McCain's long-time Senate colleagues supporting Governor Bush? Will the GOP hang on to its majority on Capitol Hill? And can any budget deal be struck in an election year? Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Mr. Leader, thank you for being here. You honor us by being on the show.

LOTT: It's great to be back. It's great to see you, Mary. And Bill, I must confess, I look in on your show and enjoy it.

PRESS: Oh, my God. Don't say that too loud, everybody will start...

(LAUGHTER)

Senator, I want to start with, before we get to politics and budget, today's top news. These Internet hackers have disrupted some of the sites of the most popular sites on the Internet, cost billions of dollars, destroyed privacy for how -- who knows how many individuals. The FBI has promised that they're going to find these people and punish them.

Is the Senate -- do you have any plans for legislation, any plans for hearings in this area, any need for Senate action?

LOTT: I think there is a need to look into the possibility of having legislation. Cyberterrorism is something we're going to have to worry about. And this is, you know, could lead to that sort of thing, terrorism -- where you have terrorists getting in and hacking and getting into the Defense Department and other places.

I've talked to Senator Bob Bennett several times about it. He really did a good job on educating people on the Y2K potential problems and helping make sure the government and everybody else was ready for it. He and Chris Dodd, from Connecticut, did a good job. And I'm thinking about working with them and with Fred Thompson to take a close look at this whole area and see if there's something we need to do or something we can do that would be helpful.

PRESS: Budget -- so the president yesterday -- Monday delivered to the Congress a $1.84 trillion...

LOTT: It's hard to get it out, isn't it?

PRESS: It is. Trillion...

LOTT: Yes.

PRESS: Before it even got there, Republican leaders said it was D.O.A., they said it was a fantasy budget. It's a budget that promises to pay off all the national debt by the year 2013. Senator Lott, the American people want to pay down this debt. Why are you guys opposed to it?

LOTT: As a matter of fact, after years of Democratic control of the Congress for the last -- this will be the third year in the row we're going to balance the budget. We're protecting every cent of Social Security. The Republicans drove that on the president last year, but we saved every nickel of Social Security. And we have an -- own budget surplus in addition to that.

We paid down the debt. Over a three year period, we've already paid down, after the end of this year, about $350 billion in paying down the debt.

Hey, man, this was our idea. And we're going to continue to work on that.

Now let me go back to what you said. You never heard me describe it as D.O.A. It is a president's budget. I think it's a political document. I think there's far too much spending in there. I think that part of what they're trying to do is to try to make sure that not this year and not in the future can we return some of the people's over-tax-payment back to the people.

I think that, you know, I'm going to comb through there and see if some -- there are areas in there where we can work together on things that'll help the American people. I think you owe that to any president.

It used to infuriate me when the Democrats would say that about the Reagan budgets.

So we will take our time look at it. And in some instances, we will look at his numbers. In the defense area, for instance, he's finally come up to where we -- closer to where we are. We want even more for defense to repair the damage that's been done over the past seven -- actually 10 years.

But you know, it is -- it is the second coming of the Great Society. It is spend, spend, spend. When he talks about tax cuts, he also has tax increases in there.

PRESS: But, Mr. Leader, when you look at the numbers, I'm not sure the numbers back up your accusation: spend, spend, spend. You know, downstairs in this building is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities -- the bipartisan or nonpartisan budget think tank. They looked at the budget. Here's what they point out: that in this president's budget, the percentage of federal spending, percentage of GDP, 1999, is 18.7 percent, and the president's budget by 2010, it goes down to 16.7 percent. That's the lowest level since 1956.

And here's what they said about the budget, Senator, if I may just read quickly: "It would be inaccurate to characterize this as a big government or big spending budget. It is a restrained budget that places major emphasis on debt reduction, features modest program initiatives focused on improving health insurance coverage, along with modest tax cuts."

This is a budget that any Republican ought to love, Senator Lott.

LOTT: Well, let me make just two points. I hate to get into numbers, but let me give you one example. Allowing for a budget that allows for inflation would be about $606 billion. The president's number is 622 billion in the next fiscal year. And by the way, if he goes over about 615, he is dipping into the Social Security trust fund. So there's problem No. 1.

The number he came up with dips -- it goes beyond where we can go without touching Social Security. And another thing, in these out- years, you're talking about the percent of GDP dropping. Here's how he does it: In the out years, after he's gone, he proposes raising spending of defense. And in the out years, when he's gone, he proposes then beginning to tail down non-defense discretionary spending. Nice trick if you can do that, but he'll be gone when those things kick in.

MATALIN: Let me kick over to our esteemed Senator Domenici, who sits on the Budget Committee, chairs the Budget Committee.

LOTT: Yes, and by the way, I think on both sides, one of the most respected senators that we have in the Congress today.

MATALIN: And also is known for not pronouncing it D.O.A., but here's what he had to say about the president's budget.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. PETE DOMENICI (R-NM), CHAIRMAN, BUDGET COMMITTEE: This is an election-year budget of the highest order. It's not really intended to be passed. It's intended to offer an opportunity for Democrats to get elected using parts of this budget, and perhaps for Al Gore to use it in his -- his election campaign.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATALIN: And see, I'm sitting here intently listening to you and jotting down the numbers and everything, but isn't the senator right? This wasn't intended to be passed? It's an election year budget? Therefore, even though you're willing to comb through it, look for places to compromise, do you think the president's going to want to do that?

LOTT: Well, I don't know I'd use the word "compromise" -- see if we can come to an agreement. I don't know that he will do that. I think a lot of it is realization on his part that this is an election year.

He's got a lot of things in there that he proposed last year that we didn't do last year. He proposes to put more people on the Medicare ship before we have reform to make sure this ship is afloat.

He also proposes, again, tax increases and fees that the Congress -- Democrat and Republican -- will not do.

So -- but , you know, it's the way it works. The president submits budgets. Congress has to pass a budget proposal for the year. By the way, I think it's time we go to biennial budgeting so we don't have to go through this entire budget and appropriations process every year and spend more time at looking at what we've actually done.

But then you go through the appropriations bills and doing what we have to do to make sure the entitlement funding is there, and at the end of the year, hopefully you can come to a final agreement.

MATALIN: Well, what the president's been able to do, through lots of devices -- let's not characterize them the way we'd like to -- but he's been able to jujitsu. When you're looking for common ground, he calls that gridlock. While you're looking for -- where, well, there have been Republican proposals on the table, he takes them as his own. We're going to talk about taxes in a minute, but the marriage penalty, for instance.

LOTT: Oh yes. Well, another thing I read in of all places "The Wall Street Journal" a couple of days ago about how the president had gotten the Congress to agree to his idea of putting the Social Security in a lock box. Excuse me? That was Senator Domenici and Abraham and Santorum that drove that idea; the House picked it up.

The president then saw that was a powerful issue, and he agreed with us. The Senate Democrats never went along. They defeated actually passing a -- the language or a mechanism for a lock box. Now it was so powerful an idea that it succeeded. And that's how we paid down the debt, because we're not spending the Social Security trust fund money.

But he is very adept on marriage penalty. He says he wants to eliminate the marriage penalty tax, because, hey look, it's clear the American people think: "What? You mean, if you get married you pay more in taxes? That's not fair" -- men, women, Republican, Democrat. But he's very neat in how he deals with it. He comes up with a proposal that doesn't actually do that. Over, I think, 10 years it would reduce the marriage penalty tax by about 45 billion or something like that, when in fact it would take 145 billion to actually phase it out and eliminate it.

PRESS: Senator, let me talk about one particular budget item in this year's budget.

LOTT: All right.

PRESS: It's an item that one of your colleagues, who's running for president, likes to talk about.

Here's Senator McCain.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My friends, I get angry when we spend $350 million on a carrier the Navy doesn't want or need, $500 or some million on an airplane, a C-130, that the Air Force has said for years they don't need. And meanwhile, my dear friends, we have 12,000 enlisted families, brave young men and women, on food stamps.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PRESS: Senator Lott, as you know, that $370 million is for the LHD-8 helicopter carrier the Navy says it doesn't want. But you put it in there. It's being built in your home state. This is just pure pork for Mississippi and nothing else, isn't it?

LOTT: First of all, it's not a carrier. He misspoke, and he knows. It's an LHD, multipurpose amphibious ship for the Marine Corps. I met just yesterday with the chief of the Navy, Admiral Jay Johnson. They want this ship. Senator McCain, by the way, has already said we need to phase out LHAs, the ships that we had in the fleet before these. What are you going to replace them with? How we going to put Marines in ships in places around the world where they need to be? It is in their budget. I have 10 written notes from the commandant of the Marine Corps, the previous commandant of the Marine Corps, saying we need this.

And there's one other little item. By going ahead and providing the funds for this, we save somewhere between $500 million and $700 million dollars. If we retire these old LHAs and replace them with new ships. Hey, like, I was on the armed services with John McCain, and anytime John McCain wants to debate ships, and this ship, I'm ready, baby.

PRESS: Yes, but, Senator, the debate is not between you and McCain. I think the debate is between you and Navy.

LOTT: It's not.

PRESS: The Navy did not request this ship. And speaking of handwritten memos, the Navy finally put -- what is it? -- $295 million in the budget. There's a handwritten note on your stationery by one of your staff members to the Navy saying, you gave the wrong answer. The right answer is $375 to $500 million.

Senator, shouldn't the Pentagon be the one who decides what the Navy needs and not some senator?

LOTT: Well, as a matter of fact, I think that the representatives of the people, who are in charge of making sure we have a strong defense, should have some input. We don't work for the Pentagon. The Pentagon can't -- is not authorized to spend one nickel or given one nickel to spend unless the Congress reviews it, looks at what we need nationwide. I mean, we don't work for the admiral of the secretary of defense. We work for the people of this country. We have some input, too.

I served seven and a half years on the Armed Services Committee. I'm not a novice when it comes to ship programs, aircraft. He talked about the C-130 J. I mean, this is one of the most important transport systems we have in our military today. If we're going to have a light, mobile military, we've got to be able to get them there, by aircraft, with equipment and by ship.

PRESS: All right, Senator Lott, we're going to take a break here.

When we come back, we've got to talk politics with the leader of the United States Senate. And what about this, you know, coming endorsement of George W. Bush? Is Senator Lott going to make it? When is he going to make it? Is he ready to make it right here and now?

LOTT: Should I do it now?

PRESS: We'll find out when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

Well, you can't talk to the most powerful Republican in the country without talking politics. So why hasn't he yet endorsed George Bush? Could he live with President McCain? And will Republicans remain control of the Senate? Politics and more with tonight's special guest, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott -- Mary.

MATALIN: Well, before we go to the Republicans and your endorsement, let's talk about the man we're going to beat.

LOTT: Good. Let's do it.

MATALIN: Looks like the nominee is going to be Vice President Gore, with whom you served in both the House and the Senate.

LOTT: That's right, I did.

MATALIN: The other night, another of your former colleagues, Alan Simpson was on "Hardball" and reminded us of this incident when the vote for the Gulf War came up, and the then-Senator Gore's behavior in determining which way he would vote on it. Let's see what Senator Simpson had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "HARDBALL WITH CHRIS MATTHEWS")

ALAN SIMPSON, FORMER SENATOR (R): He called the secretary of the Senate that night, Howard Green, and said, "I want to know if" -- expletive deleted" -- "and that if I don't get 20 minutes, I am going to vote the other way."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATALIN: Do you remember that?

LOTT: It was a talk in the Republican cloakroom and on the floor. There is no question that there was some feeling that, you know, he indicated if he got the time he might go the other way, and if he did, he would be with us. Now I wasn't privy to all the conversations, but I remember specifically it being discussed in the cloakroom that day.

MATALIN: Well, doesn't this go to Senator Bradley's concern about his opponent? That he has no core convictions? He cast that vote with the sour motivation. He's flipped on tobacco. He's flipped on abortion, MFN, the Trust Ban Treaty, offshore drilling, Social Security and...

LOTT: You're good, Mary.

MATALIN: ... gun, guns.

LOTT: We've got to get you on the campaign trail. MATALIN: These are core issues.

LOTT: They are.

MATALIN: And he's flipped on all of them. Do you -- if you served with him as long as you did, what are his core convictions?

LOTT: You know, I just find it very difficult to be critical of colleagues -- former colleagues, honestly. At least he cast the right vote on Iraq. There is no question over the years that his positions have evolved. There's no question that sometimes he has a tendency to exaggerate his involvement in a particular program or missiles -- weapons system. I mean, he did admit the Internet, and I brought, you know, what I invented here, the paper clip. You all remember that.

PRESS: Thank you.

LOTT: But you know, I -- there's no question that there has been these evolutions or these changes. But again, I think that Bradley needs to focus on that a little more, not let me do it.

PRESS: Senator, it's too bad that you don't want to be critical of colleagues present and former, but let me try again. You haven't rushed to embrace Senator John McCain's candidacy. He's a Republican. He's a senator. Isn't that kind of a slap in the face to him? And what do you have against John McCain? What don't you like about John McCain?

LOTT: Well first of all, I have not had too much to say until recently about my preference, because I did have colleagues that were running, not only John McCain, but Orrin Hatch, two important chairmen in the Senate. And I presume they're both going to be both in the Senate, working, doing their job there soon. Orrin Hatch is back. And John McCain is chairman of the Commerce Committee. I work with him on all different kind of issues -- aviation, railroad, telecommunications. So you know, I felt as majority leader, I needed to keep that opportunity to work with him open.

Having said that, I clearly think that George Bush has the best qualifications for the job, having been an executive. I read his book "A Charge to Keep," a good book. I commit it to you. But then so is John McCain's book; "Faith of My Fathers" is a good book. But in George Bush's book, he talks about, you know, his school experience and what affected in his life, how he was elected governor, and most importantly, what he did as governor, both on tax reform, on education, even on the patients' bill of rights, where he had the courage to veto a bad bill and then put in place the regulations that led to a model system for the state. So I just -- it's just that I think he is the best qualified. He is the outsider. He is the genuine reformer.

PRESS: He is your endorsed candidate for president?

LOTT: No, I have not endorsed a candidate.

PRESS: I mean, how can you come some close without doing it? And wait a minute, let me suggest this, what I've heard is you were ready to do it right after New Hampshire, but when you saw he got shalacked (ph) in New Hampshire, you said I am going to wait to see what happens in South Carolina now. You're not sure of this guy, are you?

LOTT: First of all, I like to wait for people to indicate that that's what would be helpful. But also, let me tell you this: Over the years I've had three staff members that have run for Congress. Two of them I chose not to endorse. They both won. The one I publicly endorsed and tried to tell the people how to vote, lost. I learned the hard way, elections are about the candidate, and his message and his issues. George W. Bush is the man that'll win in South Carolina, and the nomination and the presidency.

PRESS: Very quickly, would it be appropriate for you in a tight race between two Republicans to even make an endorsement, to get involved?

LOTT: I think it would be, but I would be very, you know, careful about doing it, and I would prefer not to have to do it. But I do say that I am -- there's something more important than just my position as majority leader, as a leader in the Republican Party, it's my country. And if I thought it would make a difference for country, I'd do it.

MATALIN: That's a combination of politics and policy. Has John McCain tapped into, or is he creating a fissure in the Republican Party to talk against what has long been a tenet of fiscal conservatism, that cutting top marginal rates incentives productivity? He says it's a sock to the rich. Is he tapping into something, or is he creating a fissure?

LOTT: I think he's creating a problem. You know, for many years, Republicans only talked about balanced budgets. They're important and reducing the debt is important. But when we started the winning, was when we started talking about growth, and opportunity and trying to, you know, improve our infrastructure so we can create jobs.

But John -- let me say this about John -- I mean, he has had a message that's had an appeal, and you can't take that away from him. He focused his energies in New Hampshire. He talked about we're going to change -- change is coming, and people say, yes, change is good, isn't it? Hey, I'm not -- sometime, not necessarily. We're doing a lot of right things now, both in the Congress and in the country. But he has developed a message that's had an appeal, and I think George W. Bush has got to develop a good message. Now he's talking about, you know, a reformer with results: It's one thing to talk about it; it's another thing to have done it.

MATALIN: Well, one prediction we can make in closing is you will hang on to the Senate?

LOTT: Yes, absolutely.

PRESS: I am not sure you can make that prediction at all. It's two to one here, just register my dissent. LOTT: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, we have some great candidates.

Thank you, Mary.

MATALIN: Thank you, Mr. Leader. You're terrific. Thanks for joining us.

When we come back -- that was far too civil. Bill and I will have our closing comments, promising not to be so when we return.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Mary, if that was not an endorsement, I never heard an endorsement. And you know, it's -- I find it very strange -- all these senators, these Republicans, are running to George Bush's camp because they don't like John McCain. Because you know why? Because McCain is willing to take on the pork. He's willing to take on the sacred cows. They're afraid of this guy, and they ought to be.

MATALIN: You know what? The Senate is baffled that McCain has been able to take on this mantle as the outsider, after having been there for 17, 18 years, preceding that, in the house, preceding that, as a lobbyists to the Pentagon. They are baffled by this outsider mantle. They are baffled that he's getting this campaign finance reform mantle when he's just tomorrow night, even as we prepare to see him raking in a half a million dollars from lobbyists...

(CROSSTALK)

PRESS: Wait a minute, you have to have money to run for president, but at least he wants to change the system. And these guys have all four feet in the trough.

MATALIN: Why don't we look at pork barrel in Arizona sometime?

PRESS: We'll take a look at all the pork barrel. He's willing to get rid of it.

From the left, I am Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: He's smitten.

From the right, I am Mary Matalin. Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

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