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John Edwards Discusses Future of Democrat-Controlled Senate

Aired June 2, 2001 - 17:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: From Washington, EVANS, NOVAK, HUNT & SHIELDS. Now, Robert Novak and Al Hunt.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: I'm Robert Novak. Al Hunt and I will question one of the new Democratic stars in the newly Democratic- controlled U.S. Senate.

AL HUNT, CO-HOST: He is Senator John Edwards of North Carolina.


HUNT (voice-over): The President Bush's tax cut, Congress took its week-long Memorial Day recess. When senators returned this week, things will be different, thanks to Senator James Jeffords of Vermont, leaving the Republican Party to become an independent.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE (D), MINORITY LEADER: He has announced that he will be caucusing with the Democrats for purposes of organizational matters. He will be voting for me, in essence, for majority leader. That's 51-49.

HUNT: And that's enough for Senator Daschle to demand a one vote edge on every committee and for other Democrats to envision a new day on Capitol Hill.

SEN. PATTY MURRAY (D), WASHINGTON: For the last four months, our base in particular has felt that there's been no way to make their voice heard, and it's been very difficult. With the change in the Senate, the issues that people -- we represent and care about will be brought to the floor of the Senate.

HUNT: John Edwards, elected to the Senate in 1998, and already a nationally prominent Democrat now will be in the majority for the first time.


HUNT: Senator Edwards, Mr. Jeffords put you in the majority, but you also had a conversation recently with another Republican, Senator John McCain, in which you urged him to leave the Republican Party. Tell us about that conversation.

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D), NORTH CAROLINA: Well, Al, I don't talk about private conversations I have with other senators. I do talk to John McCain regularly. I think he is a terrific person and a great leader in this country. He and I, as you know, have worked very closely together on patients' bill of rights and campaign finance reform.

So I think that McCain -- Senator McCain issued a statement today that was fairly clear about this particular issue, but Senator McCain is a man that I have a great deal of respect for and enjoyed working it.

HUNT: But you don't expect him to leave the Republican Party during this Congress, is that right?

EDWARDS: Al, I don't have any expectation about that, one way or the other. I mean, John McCain can speak for himself. He's done a terrific job of doing that over the years, and I think that's a question that ought to be directed to him.

HUNT: Well now, we will direct it to him, but you did -- it was reported in "TIME" magazine and elsewhere you and Senator Kennedy met with him to urge this course of action. There must have been a reason why you thought that there might be a receptive audience when you did that, wasn't there?

EDWARDS: But Al, you have to understand that Senator Kennedy and I meet with John McCain all the time. We are working very hard and closely together on the patients' bill of rights. Senator McCain and I have been working for a long period of time on campaign finance reform together, so we have lots of occasions to talk about a whole variety of subjects.

It's not unusual at all for us to meet. And as I said, as for the specifics of private conversations with any senator, including Senator McCain, I just don't talk about that.

NOVAK: Senator Edwards, I'd like to talk about a Democratic senator who doesn't like Senator McCain, doesn't always follow the party line, and that's the ranking Democrat and the new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus. The Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle has been very critical of him, critical in the caucus.

Freshman senators Senator Mark Dayton of Minnesota was very abusive of Senator Baucus for agreeing to a compromise tax bill that enabled President Bush's tax bill to be carried. Are you critical of Senator Baucus, or do you believe that's something he had to do being a senator from conservative Montana seeking re-election next year?

EDWARDS: Well, Bob, Max Baucus is a friend of mine, he's someone that I respect. I think he's a man of principle. I think he did what he thought was right, and it's a subject on which people could have honest disagreement. So, I don't think this is something, at least from my perspective, that I am interested in criticizing him about.

I am concerned in this entire budget debate, not just the tax cut, but the entire discussion that has been going on over the last few months, that we are not being straight with the American people. And I think it's very important we tell people the truth about this budgeting process, we tell them about costs that we know are coming, that we have a real and meaningful tax cut, one that we can afford.

But I think we have to keep this budget balanced in order to continue the prosperity that we've had. And I think that's something we have an enormous possibility to do, and if we don't do it, there's a real potential for getting back in the deficit that we were in back in the 1980s.

NOVAK: Senator Edwards, over the last six years, Senator Daschle has been very critical of his Republican counterpart, Senator Lott, for not letting legislation, Democratic legislation, come to the floor for an up-or-down vote. Now that you're going to have the control of the majority, thanks to Senator Jeffords, do you believe that every proposal by President Bush should be given an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor?

EDWARDS: Well, that's a decision that Tom Daschle will have to make, I'm not in a position to make that decision. What I will tell you is, from my conversations with Tom and what I've heard him say not only publicly but in meetings with other Senate Democrats, small meetings with other Senate Democrats, that he feels very strongly that we have to show that we deserve the mantle of leadership.

Now, I will tell you there are a number of issues that I think are mainstream America issues, like the patients' bill of rights, like prescription drugs, those kinds of issues that need to get to the floor -- election reform -- need to get to the floor of the Senate, and I think Tom feels a real obligation now that we have a chance to do that, to bring those issues.

NOVAK: Those are Democratic issues. I was talking about President Bush's proposals. And just this weekend, sir, in Las Vegas for a fund-raiser, Senator Daschle said that the bill authorizing the proposed nuclear waste repository in Nevada, at Yucca flats, is dead. Now everybody knows there's well over 60 -- up to 65 or more senators who are in favor of that. And when Senator Daschle says that's dead, does that mean you're going to use techniques to prevent it from coming to a vote?

EDWARDS: Well, Bob, I don't -- I can't speak specifically to what Senator Daschle was saying about that particular issue. What I do believe, because I know Tom Daschle very well, is that he's inclusive. I think he will reach out to Republicans. He will make sure the Republicans have an opportunity, including the proposals by the White House, that they have an opportunity to bring those issues to the floor of the Senate, for those issues to be subject to full and fair debate.

I think that will be the general approach to issues, because I think Tom wants to prove and we want to prove as Democrats that, in fact, we can carry this mantle of leadership responsibly.

HUNT: Senator Edwards, before you become the majority, Republicans have said, however, that you have to -- you have to agree to certain procedures, such as guaranteeing that Bush nominations won't be blocked in committee but will go to the floor. They said they may filibuster any change in the majority if you don't agree to that. Is that a fair request?

EDWARDS: Well, Al, I just don't think we should get too bogged down in this process stuff. I mean, I don't see any reason to make some dramatic change in the rules and the way that we've been doing things.

I think what really matters is that we go about focusing on these issues I talked about. Specifically with respect to judges, I think it is important that we work with the White Mouse, and I think it's very likely now if now that the Democrats control the Senate -- these judges have to go through the Senate -- we'll have to work with the White House, they will have to work with us. And I think the likely result of that is we are going to have moderate, mainstream judges that get confirmed to sit on the bench.

HUNT: But the process -- but the process...

EDWARDS: That's a very good thing.

HUNT: ... will be just as it's been the last four or five years, then, basically?

EDWARDS: I would be surprised to see the process change. I don't -- I mean, why would it change now? And why it should be different than it was 10 years ago? But more important than the process, Al, is that we work constructively to get quality people on the bench, which I think we can do.

NOVAK: Let me be specific if I could, Senator Edwards. There is a proposed federal appeals court judge from your state called Chief District Judge Terrence Boyle who was nominated by the first President Bush, tied up by the then-Democratic Senate.

Now he has been renominated by the second President Bush, and there was some reports that you were holding him up, you say you're not. But we asked your senior colleague about this, Senator Jesse Helms, on this program a couple of weeks ago, and here's what he said.


SEN. JESSE HELMS (R), NORTH CAROLINA: You know, he said at one time -- and I'm not being critical of John, he's a nice fellow and my colleague -- but he wanted equal representation. You know when the last Republican who served on -- from North Carolina who served on the 4th Circuit Court was? John J. Parker, of my hometown of Monroe, and he finished up his term in 1925. There has not been a North Carolina Republican on the 4th Circuit Court since that time.


NOVAK: In the interests of equal treatment, Senator Edwards, don't you think it's time for another Republican on that appeals court? EDWARDS: Well, Bob, the thing that was left out of that discussion is the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has judges that are heavily appointed by Republicans. And I think they're generally recognized -- that court is generally recognized to be one of the most conservative circuit courts, if not the most conservative circuit court in the country.

But having said all that, I still think we can get this job done. I mean, I think I have a responsible to the people of North Carolina, as does Jesse Helms, to find quality people, work with the White House, let the White house nominate those people and get them on the court. I think we want somebody representing North Carolina on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

NOVAK: OK, we're going to have to take a break. And when we come back we'll explore just what kind of Democrat John Edwards of North Carolina really is.


HUNT: Senator, as you have stated on this program, one of your real passions is the patients bill of rights. Senator Daschle said that he will very soon bring up the Edwards-McCain-Kennedy HMO reform bill. Do you have the votes to break a possible Republican filibuster on that measure?

EDWARDS: I think that's a close question, Al, and we don't know exactly how many votes we have. I think we clearly have in the '50s, just based on the support that we know of. And I think we're very close to 60.

I think all of us -- Senator McCain, Senator Kennedy and myself believe that once we get this issue to the floor of the Senate and -- much like campaign finance reform -- it's subject to free and open debate before the American people, that people will come along and will finally give families more control over their health care decision in this country. Should have been done a long time ago.

HUNT: President Bush says that your bill would bankrupt some HMOs and would be a bonanza for trial lawyers, of which you used to be a member of that profession. How do you plead?

EDWARDS: I plead not guilty; does that surprise you?

I think the president is wrong about that. The president ran on supporting a patients bill of rights. We have a patients bill of rights that is supported by every medical group, every health care group, every consumer group in America, and the only people who are opposed to our bill are the HMOs. I mean, that in and of itself says volumes. And I think, actually, the trial lawyers have come out opposed to our bill.

So this is not about, you know, groups. It's not about those kinds of things. It's not about Republicans or Democrats. This is a mainstream American issue. It matters to people; I hear it in town hall meetings and on -- when I'm talking on the street corner to people all the time, they want something done about these HMO abuses, and it's something we ought to do something about.

NOVAK: Senator Edwards, you're often described, in very favorable press that you get, as a centrist Democrat or a moderate Democrat. But I looked up your voting record today for last year, and the liberal Americans for Democratic Action give you an 85 percent rating and the conservative -- American Conservative Union give you a 12 percent rating, which both sides -- left and right -- put you pretty far to the left. About the only time you give a conservative vote is on defense.

How do you describe that as a moderate position, sir?

EDWARDS: Well, I don't use labels, first of all, bob. I think what matters is that most of the things that I promote -- things like the patients bill of rights, campaign finance reform, fiscal responsibility, paying down the debt -- the things that I believe in, I think, are the things that mainstream America believes in. I think it's what they care about.

What some particular Washington lobbying group says pro or con is not the issue. The issue is: What do most of the real people around this country think. And I think I'm pretty much in tune with what most people care about.

NOVAK: But just this year, in this very short session, Senator Edwards, on the key votes you voted -- and we'll put it up on the screen how you voted -- you voted no on the confirmation of John Ashcroft for attorney general, no on the confirmation of Gale Norton for secretary of the interior, no on the confirmation of Ted Olson as solicitor general, no on the budget resolution, no on the tax relief bill.

I would say those are the five big votes; and each one of those, where you had some Democrats crossing party lines, you voted with the leadership. That's sort of a partisan democratic record, isn't it?

EDWARDS: Well, that's a very carefully selected group of votes, Bob. What -- in fact, what you've left out on confirmations is I voted to confirm the vast majority of the people that the president proposed, No 1. No. 2, when the $1.2 trillion dollar tax cut came through the Senate the first time, I voted for that because I believe in a substantial tax cut. Then later when all these gimmicks and gadgets were added to it that are not being straight and not being honest with the American people, I voted against it.

So the bottom line is you've picked a very small handful of votes. And on some very significant votes, in fact, I voted what I think is very much the moderate mainstream position.

HUNT: Senator, as you know, there is considerable speculation that you may run for president some day. I'd like to ask you a little bit about foreign policy, which would be terribly important: How would an Edwards policy towards China and Taiwan today be different than the Bush policy?

EDWARDS: Well, I -- generally speaking, I would say this, Al: I think that what we've seen with the Bush administration -- speaking more generically, and then I'll come to that specific question -- is some fairly uneven handling of foreign policy. I don't know if that's because of some difference of opinion within the administration, with Secretary Powell and Rumsfeld and Cheney. I don't know what the reason for that is.

But there was walking away from engagement in Korea, and now we've gone back to being engaged. Walking away from engagement in the Middle East, now we've gone back to being engaged. Walking away from our commitment to our allies in the Balkans, now sort of trying to get back in and smooth some of that over.

So I think what we've seen is a fairly uneven performance, which I do have to say is surprising, because we have very experienced, very knowledgeable people in the administration on this issue.

I think that I have -- in fact, in most areas like, for example, their handling of the situation with our servicemen and women and getting our servicemen and women home, I think with a little bump at the beginning, the Bush administration actually did a very good job of that. I mean, the president made what I think was not a real change in policy. I don't...

HUNT: In 10 seconds could you...

EDWARDS: One last thing: I think he didn't intend to abandon strategic ambiguity. I think what he was doing, Al, was just made a mistake in his use of words.

NOVAK: Senator Edwards, a lot of people on both sides of the aisle think the one thing that you could do in Congress to help the economy with tax policy is a major cut in the capital gains rate. If -- that's felt by liberals like Torricelli of New Jersey and Schumer of New York. If -- on a straight up or down vote that came back to the Senate with none of the other things of the bill, could you vote for a cut in the capital gains rate?

EDWARDS: By itself it wouldn't be at the top of my list, Al -- I mean Bob. I think there are other things that are more important than cutting the capital gains rate. We have cut it once; it's down to 20 percent, as you know, now. And I think, at some point in the future, depending on what happens with the economy, what happens with surpluses, the capital gains rate certainly belongs on the table. But it would be a fair ways down the list on my list of priorities.

NOVAK: OK, we have to take another break. And when we come back we'll have "The Big Question" for John Edwards of North Carolina.


NOVAK: "The Big Question" for John Edwards. Senator, you came within this close of being named as vice president Al Gore. A lot of people think you would be vice president of the United States if he had named you. Now do you believe Al Gore should try again and run again for president in the year 2004? EDWARDS: This -- I think that should be his decision, Bob. I'll say this about Al Gore, he's a good man. He was a good candidate, he ran very hard. I they he would have made a very good president of the United States, and if he decides to run again I think he would have enormous support.

NOVAK: Would you support him?

EDWARDS: That's a decision he and his family would have to make. I think it depends on who else is running. I start with an extremely high opinion of Al gore based in the way he dealt with me and the way he ran his campaign,

HUNT: Senator Edwards, in the last four months have you spoken to Al Gore or to Bill Clinton?

EDWARDS: I have not spoken to Al Gore. I have spoken to Bill Clinton.

HUNT: When you spoke to Bill Clinton did the question of 2004 politics come up and did he urge you or discourage you from running?

EDWARDS: My conversation with President Clinton was focused on the issue of the budget, fiscal policy. Here was a man who did a terrific job of managing the fiscal policy of the country for a period of eight years.

HUNT: And never talked 2004?

EDWARDS: Oh, I'm sure the subject came up. But in all seriousness, Al, the focus was on what we ought to do about the budget and what we ought to do about fiscal policy and how to talk about those things. And I think he's a real expert on that subject.

HUNT: John Edwards, thank you for joining us today. We'll take a break and Bob Novak and I will be back with a brief discussion in just a moment.


HUNT: Bob, I was at a commencement ceremony Friday night at Woodbury Forest in Orange, Virginia, and I'll tell you, the politician they asked the most about was John Edwards. The speculation about Edwards goes well beyond inside the beltway.

NOVAK: You know, Al, he has a very nice Southern accent, nice style, he doesn't come over as abrasive. But his position on all these issues in the last year and in this year is just the same as the most liberal Northern Democrat. He's a straight liberal Democratic politician, but he has a nice Southern accent; reminds you a little bit of Bill Clinton.

HUNT: Yes, but I'll tell you something, that no vote on John Ashcroft, Ted Olson, the tax cut -- it will help him in any Democratic primary should he choose to run, and it'll either help or won't matter in a general election. NOVAK: And I was fascinated, Al, that Al Gore, who nearly picked him for vice president hasn't talked to him since the election. That just stunned me. A lot of people in the Gore campaign who fought for Edwards for vice president were disappointed that Joe Lieberman was named.

I thought that Joe Lieberman was Mr. August, the big excitement during the convention, but they thought that John Edwards was Mr. November who would have carried some of the South including North Carolina, and you know what? They might have been right.

I'm Robert Novak.

HUNT: And I'm Al Hunt. Coming up in one half hour on "RELIABLE SOURCES": Was the media violating the first family's privacy reporting the Bush daughters attempts to buy alcohol? And an interview with long time Washington journalist Daniel Shore.

And at 7:00 p.m. on "CAPITAL GANG": President Bush's California summit, the Supreme Court Casey Martin decision. And our "Newsmaker of the Week," New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson.

NOVAK: That's all for now. Thanks for joining us.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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