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Evans, Novak, Hunt & Shields

Trent Lott Discusses Campaign 2000 and the Congressional Agenda

Aired March 11, 2000 - 5:30 p.m. ET


ROWLAND EVANS, CO-HOST: I'm Rowland Evans. Robert Novak and I will question the top Republican in the United States Senate.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: He is Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.


(voice-over): While the political world's attention has been on the presidential primaries, the Democratic administration and the Republican-controlled Congress have been up to their old games. President Clinton took exception to Republican plans to tie tax reduction to an increase in the minimum wage.

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If Republican leaders send me a bill that make workers wait for another year for their full pay raise and holds the minimum wage hostage for risky tax cuts that threaten our prosperity, I'll veto it.

NOVAK: The president also called for congressional approval of permanent trade status for China, but the Republican Party's prospective presidential nominee sounded less then enthusiastic.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think we need to review the request -- need to review the request. First and foremost we need to make it clearer to the Chinese and Taiwanese we expect it to be a peaceful resolution of any disputes they have on the form of government that eventually takes place in that part of the world.

NOVAK: Trent Lott was elected to the Senate in 1988 following 16 years in the House, where he served as the Republican whip. He was elected to his party's Senate leadership after the 1992 election and became majority leader in mid-1996 when Bob Dole resigned.


EVANS: Senator Lott, we're going to talk about what's going on in the Senate. That's a while down the road.


EVANS: But I want to talk now for just a moment about the election, about the nomination process in the Republican Party with Senator McCain dropping out and Governor Bush clinching the nomination. Do you think it is possible to satisfy Senator McCain on campaign finance reform so that you'll have a united party with the Senate Republicans? Governor Bush and Senator McCain all agree on that subject?

LOTT: I think so, and I certainly hope so. I don't think that should be focus of our campaign, however. A lot of people, I think, give more weight to that in John's campaign then really is due. I think, what John did was he tapped into his record of duty and honor and really became the anti-Clinton candidate, and that's what really drove his candidacy.

But I've watched John McCain in the past when you weren't quite sure how he would react. He has reacted quite magnanimously. For instance, he was very much for Phil Gramm for president for the nomination four years ago. And when Phil lost, I think he was on the next plane with Bob Dole and worked his heart out for Bob Dole.

John McCain does not want Al Gore to be president of the United States. I believe he will, after a period of time of introspection and thinking about things, John will probably become one of George W. Bush's most aggressive campaigners.

EVANS: Are you saying, Senator, that you don't have to, that Governor Bush and the party does not have to, buy, in essence, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill in order to get Senator McCain on board?

LOTT: I don't think so. But look, George W. Bush has said he's for campaign finance reform. I'm for campaign finance reform -- real campaign finance reform, not something that just tries to limit one sector of campaign financing that can be a problem. And there are of lot of other areas that need to be addressed.

When I go to the gates of industry, when I'm running for re- election, every time I get to the gate, I look across from in there and there are five or six or seven union stewards handing out my opponent's literature which is not reported, not paid for by my opponent. Now if we want to have real reform, hey, we can do business.

And I hope that -- I think George W. Bush will be prepared to say to John McCain: John, let's -- we can work together and we can have real campaign finance reform. But reform is about something much bigger than campaign finance reform.

EVANS: I don't want to get into a huge discussion about campaign finance reform.

LOTT: Good.

EVANS: But I do need a definition of real campaign finance reform. What is real campaign finance reform?

LOTT: I've forgotten some of the things that George W. Bush has talked about, some increase in what individuals can contribute perhaps, something in the soft money area without eliminating it.

NOVAK: Senator McCain calls that a joke. He calls the Bush program a joke.

LOTT: Frankly, I think the McCain-Feingold bill is a joke.

EVANS: Mr. Lott, let me switch.

If you had your druthers on this -- and give me a frank answer -- would you put Senator McCain on the ticket with Bush?

LOTT: I think that would be presumptuous for me.

EVANS: No, I think this is a very hypothetical question.

LOTT: I don't know, I would look at all kinds of factors. I think, Governor Bush is right when he says the only thing he should really consider is who would make the best president. Who could be president if something should happen to him, assuming he's president? You've got a lot of great prospective candidates out there. But you need to consider age, region, experience, all kinds of things. And there are a raft of really good candidates.

EVANS: But today, Senator, there's only one John McCain. Now he pushed Governor Bush of Texas way over to the right in this primary battle. He's got to, Bush has got to, find moderates, indies, as they say, independents and Democrats, who can do that for him other then Senator McCain?

LOTT: Well, I'm not advocating any of these candidates, but I said there were a number of them. I'll just name some of them, Colin Powell.

NOVAK: Colin Powell?

LOTT: Yes.

NOVAK: How's Colin Powell on abortion?

LOTT: I'm not advocating this, but you said, how can you field the moderates and indies?

Elizabeth Dole. My personal favorite, frankly is John Kasich of Ohio. You've got governors across the country, including John Engler and lots of others. Now John McCain clearly has earned the right to be considered. I'm not sure -- he says he doesn't want that.

NOVAK: They all say that.

LOTT: But I think maybe that's true with John. But maybe not. I think he ought to be considered.

NOVAK: John Zogby, the noted pollster, says that if George Bush and the Republican center, including people like you, don't make the proper deal with John McCain, the Republican Party is dead for 2000. LOTT: American people want change from business-as-usual. They want honesty. And if there appears to be some sort of deal for John McCain's support, I don't know that necessarily would go over well with a lot of people either. But for the two candidates to sit down and sort of mend themselves, having sort of a catharsis and say how can we work together, that needs to be done. And I really believe it will be done. I know George W. Bush and I know John McCain, and I know that they do have some hard goals and principles they believe in. I just believe these two men can come together.

NOVAK: Senator Lott, I heard Senator McCain all over New Hampshire and South Carolina and Michigan describe the system here in Washington as corrupt and saying that it needs to be saved. Only -- out of the 55 Republican senators, only four, I believe, endorsed him for president. What kind of welcome home will he get when he returns to full-time duties in the Senate?

LOTT: We left the light on for John McCain. We thought probably he'd be coming back. The Senate is a unique place, Bob. You already know that. And we sometimes have friendships which people are surprised to see that goes beyond a party and reason and philosophy. John McCain will be welcomed back and will go to work and hopefully will do an excellent job as chairman of the Commerce Committee and as senator.

NOVAK: No hard feelings?

LOTT: No. Put it behind us and move forward. Remember this, when Bob Smith of New Hampshire gave a tough speech on the floor of the Senate which really offended some of us, we didn't ostracize him and throw him out of conference and berate him and all. We said, Bob, we know you. We know your philosophy. We hear you. Work with us. Come back and we'll move forward. He did. Today, he's chairman of a committee. We did it with Bob Smith. And we don't have the same situation with John McCain. I'm not saying he's left the party. He hasn't.

EVANS: But Senator, the feeling about Senator Smith of New Hampshire as contrasted to the feeling Senator McCain of Arizona, there's a huge gap there. There's real animus in the Senate, parts of it, about John McCain. I'm not trying to explain it or justify it, but I have heard some senators say he's been away so long from his duties in the Senate that he should be stripped of his chairmanship.

LOTT: I have never heard that, and it will not happen. John has a job to do, and I presume after a period of thinking things through that he'll come back and do that. That's just not the way we do business in the Senate. I mean, some people would be surprised at some of the relationships that I have with Democrats.

You know, in the first instance, we're still human beings. I know John McCain well. His family and my family have been neighbors for a century. His family and my family forefathers fought together at Gettysburg. And we'll be together when the smoke clears this time.

EVANS: And on the same side? LOTT: On the same side.

EVANS: On the south side.

LOTT: Right.

EVANS: And we have to take a break, Senator.

LOTT: Right.

EVANS: And when we come back with Senator Lott, the Senate majority leader, we're going to talk about the last session of the 106th Congress. Will anything get done?

In a moment.


NOVAK: Trent Lott, we began this program with a soundbite by the president threatening to veto the minimum wage bill if you put Republican tax cuts on it. Surely, since there is obviously a majority of your members who feel they have to vote for a minimum wage increase, you're not going to put tax cuts on there and get another veto, are you?

LOTT: We're absolutely going to provide tax relief for working Americans, small-businessmen and women, the many of them that are just right on the margin.

We will have a vote on minimum wage and it will have attached to it small-business tax relief. That is important in trying to keep them in business and trying to get entry-level people to continue to have jobs. We're going to do that. And if he wants to -- the president is going to veto a minimum wage increase because there's some tax relief provisions in there for small-businessmen and women? I don't know.

NOVAK: He'll call that a risky tax...

LOTT: Oh look, this is a political year. He's committed to his sidekick there, Albert Gore. And he'll try to politicize everything. But where I'm from, tax relief for small-businessmen and women who create the majority of the new jobs in America is not something that is bad or risky. And you're not talking about, you know, the big provisions. You're talking about a series of smaller ones, accelerating expensing. You're talking about continuing to have incentives for people to take people off of welfare and give them a job in the economy, a small business.

So what I say on that, Mr. President, I accept your challenge.

EVANS: Mr. Leader, I want to switch to the hottest political question outside of presidential politics in Washington today, and that is China, the World Trade Organization and MFN, most favored nation permanent for China. You have said -- and a lot of Republicans and Democrats who are for this agree with you -- that the president really hasn't put his shoulder to the wheel on this issue. You have up until now. But if you're going to take the blame for this to go down, if it goes down, do you think that maybe if the president doesn't do more you might be inclined to do a little less yourself? He is the leader of this...

LOTT: Surely, I've made that very clear. I've been saying that this year. And then I said it specifically one morning this past week in the International Trade Subcommittee or Finance Committee. I said, the president, I didn't think, was doing enough. He was going to have to do more.

I met with the president that night with a bipartisan group at the White House from the Senate, and he went through what he had been doing and what he intended to do. And he convinced me that he is going to put it on line. And if he will, I will. We'll go forward. I will support it. I believe we can pass it in the Senate. And I predict here today that permanent trade status for China will pass.

EVANS: Even though the vice president and the Democratic presidential candidate is saying publicly that he's going to redo the bill if he gets elected? And he's in hock to Labor -- is he in hock to Labor?

LOTT: Look, there are a number of things that haven't been handled well. That's what I was saying to the president. The Seattle WTO meeting was a disaster. And the president went out there and seemed to be siding with the people in the streets bashing windows and destroying things. That was terrible.

Al Gore meets with the union guys and more or less says, don't worry, I'll fix it when we get in there. And we made it clear to the administration, they've got to control Albert Gore. They've really got to work to get Democrat votes. China has got to, you know, watch itself, too. I mean, it could still come apart.

EVANS: I wanted to ask you that. If the Chinese carry out some of these threats they've been making against Taiwan, if they don't approve their human rights in a measurable way very soon, are you still able to make that flat prediction that this will go through Congress?

LOTT: Well, I don't think they can improve their human rights very soon. But they must move to improve...

EVANS: Face the Taiwan issue and weapons for (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

LOTT: If they don't back off the rhetoric and if they do anything to carry out their threats then certainly it would be all over.

But let me make one final point on this. This is not about China, this is about America. This is about opening trade opportunities around the world. This is about jobs in America. The American automobile industry, for instance -- it's amazing to me that UAW would oppose this, because we're going to be selling American automobiles into China and the parts to go with it. This is about openness and opportunity for agriculture in America, automobiles, and it is in our best interest to do this.

NOVAK: But George W. Bush, as we showed on the beginning of this program, says that take a second look at this because of Taiwan. How much are you listening to the prospective nominee of the party on the question of WTO and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) or any other issue that comes up...

LOTT: Very closely. And I'm going to be talking directly with him as we go forward so we'll understand exactly what he's going to emphasize and so he'll understand what we're going to be dealing with in the Congress.

But we'll listen to him. And let me emphasize this. While I make a prediction, that doesn't mean that, you know, we'll get that vote despite whatever may happen. We also have to take the time to review what the White House has sent up, make it clear to the White House that we're not going to vote on this in secret. The American public is going to know what is in, what we're voting on.

EVANS: But they haven't released that.

LOTT: Well, it's going to be released.

EVANS: When?

LOTT: Before we vote, because I'm not voting in secret on something of this importance where the American people don't know what we're voting on. And we'll have to review it all. The Finance Committee'll have some hearings. Then the Finance Committee hopes to have a vote sometime before the end of April, and then we'll assess where we go from there.

NOVAK: Senator Lott, I've heard Senator McCain all over New Hampshire attack pork-barrel spending kind of bills that went through the Republican Congress with all the pork attached. Now, I'm told that the supplemental bill in the House of Representatives is getting loaded with as much pork as you can imagine. What are you going to do about that?

LOTT: I'm opposed to a supplemental this year. I don't think we need it. I think it's already getting too fat. I have indicated to the two chairman -- Appropriations Committee, House and Senate -- that I didn't think we should do it. It would just become bloated and spend too much money. Some of what is in that bill will need to be done.

I think, for instance, we need to do something serious in trying to help fight the Colombian drug lords down there. But I think what we should do is to advance the appropriations schedule at least a month earlier than ordinary and put the money we need for defense in the regular Defense appropriations bill. Put the money, if we're going to have some, in, how it's going to be done in the foreign relations bill for fighting the Colombian drug lords. We can do it there. We can do it faster, and we can keep it from becoming an engine that pulls a long train of spending that we don't need.

NOVAK: We just have a minute left before we take a break, but I do want to bring up Senator McCain. And many members of the media have attacked you for a $370 million chopper carrier which was built in your hometown of Pascagoula, Mississippi. Not wanted by the Navy, but you put it through. How do you defend that, Senator?

LOTT: Well, very easily. First of all, it's not a carrier. It's a...

EVANS: Chopper carrier.

LOTT: It's not a chopper carrier, it's a multi-purpose amphibious warship for the Marine Corps. The Navy just drives it. It's a Marine vessel.

The Navy does want this ship, and it's at the top of their unfunded priority list. I have handwritten notes from the previous commandant of the Marine Corps and the current commandant of the Marine Corps saying, yes, we need this vessel.

And there is one other little item that a number of people don't seem to take into consideration. By going forward and beginning this incremental funding of that very important vessel, we can save between $500 and $700 million. That is worthwhile.

And there is one other point. Because of the Clinton-Gore administration's misuse, in my opinion, of our military and underfunding, by the year 2002 we're going to have a serious problem with inadequate numbers of ships and aircraft. There's going to be a bow wave coming that is going to be much, much more expensive than we're going to be able to afford. We need to begin to address that now.

EVANS: Mr. Leader, I'm sorry to break in. We have to take another break.

And when we come back with Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, we'll have "The Big Question" in a moment.


EVANS: "The Big Question" for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

Senator, will your Congress, your Republican Congress, send the Democratic president a serious tax reduction, marginal tax-rate reduction, bill in this session?

LOTT: I doubt if we will send a marginal tax-rate reduction. There will be significant tax relief provided in a number of bills and there will be a substantial bill at the end of the session, probably in September.

What we need is a Republican president, George W. Bush, that will sign a much larger bill that will make tax relief fairer to all Americans. But here's what we really need. And this is, in my opinion, what will elect George W. Bush president if he goes for it. He needs to tell the American people now, yes, we're going to try to make the tax code fairer. But within two years we're going to fundamentally scrap the tax code we now have. We're going for broad tax reform that will make the tax code fairer, flatter and simpler. And, American people, we're going to do it. If he'll do that, the American people will get excited.

NOVAK: But, Senator, Governor Bush has traveled all over the country. He has never said that. He's had any number of opportunities. I have asked him on this broadcast to do it. Have you said, face to face, Governor, you ought to do this?

LOTT: Not yet, but I will.

NOVAK: What do you think his reaction will be?

LOTT: I think he's going to grab hold of it as we go on into the fall election. I think it's a powerful force that the media tremendously underrates.

The American people hate the tax system we have now. They know it's not fair. They know it's incomprehensible and unable to comply with, and it's stifles growth and opportunity.

Regardless of region or race or sex, this will have real appeal to working Americans.

EVANS: Majority Leader Trent Lott, thank you very much. My partner and I will be back with a comment after these messages.


EVANS: Bob, the senator made it very clear to me one thing. He is going to be a big player in this campaign, and he is going to center on tax reform. He thinks tax reform as opposed to a tax cut may be the answer to George Bush's problem.

NOVAK: Everybody in Washington really knows that John McCain is not No. 1 on Trent Lott's dance card, but he never let on with us in our conversation. He was saying, if there's going to be trouble in the Senate, it will be John McCain's fault, not Trent Lott's fault.

EVANS: And I was surprised, Bob, how absolutely clear and concise he was on this China issue. It's going to pass Congress. He predicted that flatly, almost without equivocation.

NOVAK: And I think Republicans are getting a little smarter after McCain on campaign finance reform. They're not saying, no, never, they're saying, we like campaign finance reform, but we like our kind of campaign finance reform. And it's very clear that is not the McCain-Feingold bill.

NOVAK: I'm Robert Novak.

EVANS: I'm Roland Evans.

NOVAK: Coming up in one half-hour on "RELIABLE SOURCES," the presidential campaign and the 20th anniversary of "Nightline" with "Nightline" host Ted Koppel of ABC News.

And at 7:00 p.m. Eastern, "THE CAPITAL GANG" is joined by New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani.

EVANS: And that's all for now, thanks for watching.


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