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Interview With John Breaux

Aired January 5, 2002 - 17:30   ET


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: I'm Robert Novak. Al Hunt and I will question a leader of the bipartisan Centrist Coalition in Congress.

AL HUNT, CO-HOST: He is Democratic Senator John Breaux of Louisiana.


(voice-over): For months, Louisiana political circles have speculated that John Breaux would end his long congressional career and run for governor in 2003. In Baton Rouge this week he announced that he would stay in the Senate.

SEN. JOHN BREAUX (D), LOUISIANA: The main reason came down to the fact that the state of Louisiana has almost a 30-year investment in me serving in the Congress, both in the house and the Senate.

HUNT: Elected to the House in 1972 at the age of 28 and entering the Senate in 1986, Breaux often has advocated moderate positions at variance with Democratic policy.

Just prior to the adjournment of Congress last month, he broke party ranks to support an economic stimulus package that was endorsed by President Bush and passed by the Republican-controlled House. The bill died in the Democratic-controlled Senate. But in his Baton Rouge press conference this week, Senator Breaux urged all sides to work with Democratic leader Tom Daschle to pass a stimulus bill in the new session of Congress.


HUNT: Senator Breaux, your Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, on Friday called for a new economic package, which he said should include short-term stimulus, more spending on anti-terrorism and initiatives like health and education. But he also said that over the long term, to address a new, burgeoning budget deficit, that those tax cuts for wealthier, upper income Americans, should be addressed by the Congress.

Here's exactly what he said.


SEN. TOM DASCHLE (D-SD), MAJORITY LEADER: The tax cut has taken away our flexibility and left us with only two choices, both of them bad. We can short-change critical needs, such as homeland defense, or we can raid the Social Security surplus.


HUNT: Will Senator Breaux support the Democratic leader here?

BREAUX: I think, Al, that Tom Daschle has made a very positive contribution in talking about the fact that we will address some type of an economic stimulus package when we come back in January.

I think the economic indicators are going to be important. If it shows that the country, in fact, is turning around, I think that means it's less of a necessity to do anything. Although, if I suspect that they will not be that positive, I think this is a good statement from Tom Daschle that we're going to -- at least -- going to begin the process of doing something on economic stimulus.

HUNT: But Tom Daschle, picking up on what Democratic rulers like Bob Rubin have said, is that long run, you can't really have a healthy economy as long as you have those big tax cuts out there.

You voted for those tax cuts, Senator. Are you willing to reconsider them now?

BREAUX: I don't think we're going to be reopening with any degree of success the package that we passed last time, Al. I think that the worst thing you can do is increase taxes during a recessionary period. And to go back on that program would, in effect, be a tax increase.

But I think there's some things that we can do. I think there's going to have to be balance.

We obviously live in a divided government. I mean, neither side's going to get everything they want when the Senate is 50, 49 and 1.

HUNT: Several weeks ago, you said Republicans were making a mistake in trying to demonize Tom Daschle. But ever since Vice President Cheney called him an obstructionist, that attack has increased over the holiday. What advice would you give to Senator Daschle and his critics?

BREAUX: I'd give the advice to the Republicans who are trying to demonize Tom, I think they make a terrible mistake. I think the American public is, quite frankly, very tired of people in Washington spending so much of our time calling each other names. I mean, they want results, they don't want name-calling; they think that's pretty childish. And I think the Republicans make a serious mistake when they attack Tom. I think that he's played it just about right. He hasn't engaged in name-calling. And I think -- to his credit -- I think he's come off on the top of it.

NOVAK: Senator Breaux, you were one of only three Democratic senators to support the last compromise economic stimulus package that the president supported, which was a compromise from the original. A lot of Republicans don't think it was very good. But now, in your press conference this week in Baton Rouge, when you said you weren't running for governor, you said you have to work more with Senator Daschle for a new program.

The Republicans say that's the trouble with John Breaux; we made a compromise with him, and he wants to compromise some more. Don't they have a point there, sir?

BREAUX: Well, I think the obvious answer, Bob, is the fact that when you have the 50, 49 and 1 Senate, that you're not going to have either side getting everything they wanted. Those of us in the centrist coalition, Republicans and Democrats, got together and said, "Look. You're going to have a little bit of what both sides want. You're going to have to have some tax cuts for business to allow them to grow, to hire more people, but at the same time, you'll have to have a package that addresses the unemployed with extra unemployment compensation, also helping them with health insurance."

The problem, in too many cases, that the political advisers say, "You're going to have to do it all our way or nothing at all." And nothing at all generally wins...


BREAUX: ... to encourage people to have health insurance is a good way of going about giving people the ability to choose what's best for them.

I want to give people the ability to have all the information they can have and then help -- allow them to make the decision that's best for them and their family. A tax code concept allows them to do that. I feel very strongly that's the right way to go, and I think that there are Democrats who are now beginning to look at this as a good idea.

HUNT: Senator, over 90 percent of your Democratic colleagues in the Senate opposed your compromise because they said, substantively, that whatever your philosophical position on tax credits, under your plan, most unemployed workers wouldn't be able to afford to keep their health insurance.

And they also said that your tax plan, under the guise of stimulus, that 80 percent of those tax cuts would take effect after 2002, the year we're supposed to be stimulating.

Would you be willing to alter both of those to make them more amenable to about 90 percent of your caucus?

BREAUX: Al, let me talk about the health insurance proposal for the first time. What we had was a proposal, the federal government, for the first time in history, would've paid about 60 percent of the cost of a premium for a person to buy health insurance when they lose their job.

Right now, the federal government pays zero. This is a 100 percent increase over what we do now.

Some said, "Well, that means, the individual would still have to come up with 40 percent," but right now, he gets no help, zero help. This would've been a 100 percent increase, that would have been a major step in the right direction to work on increasing it in the future.

HUNT: And how about paring back those out-year tax cuts?

BREAUX: Well, one of the things that is, quite frankly, a difficult thing to do when you're talking about business, is you're going to give them a tax cut only for 12 months, it doesn't allow them to do the planning for expansion that's going to take two or three years. You have to craft a bill that's going to give them the predictability that they know that what they invest in today will at least be here for two or three...

HUNT: And you don't think that John Breaux got snookered by George Bush in that deal?

BREAUX: Oh, no, George Bush has not been trying to snooker anybody. And I don't think he's going to snooker anybody from Louisiana, that's for sure.

NOVAK: Senator Breaux, quickly before we have to take a break, I want to ask your opinion on a couple of the charges the Republicans make about Senator Daschle being an obstructionist. Eugene Scalia up for solicitor of the Labor Department; Otto Reich up for assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs; supposed to vote first to have a majority of the Senate. Senator Daschle won't bring it to a vote. Would you like to see an up-or-down vote on those two nominations?

BREAUX: I have no problems with an up-or-down vote. I think that's what the Senate is supposed to do. But you can't change the rules of the Senate. When you have the ability to filibuster something in the Senate, that's the rules of the Senate. And I think Tom's concern was, why bring up something that doesn't have the votes to pass and take up the time when we're trying to pass a farm bill and the Republicans were filibustering the farm bill.

NOVAK: I think they do have the votes to pass. They don't have 60 votes. Isn't that the question?

BREAUX: Well, the rules of the Senate, as you know, Bob, require sometimes that you can filibuster something that's being brought up, and it's going to require 60 votes. We're not going to change the rules of the Senate just to accommodate a particular bill or a particular nominee.

NOVAK: One more question, the proposal for all the drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, ANWR, that is supposed to have a majority in the Senate, and Senator Daschle won't bring that up for a vote. Would you like to see an up-or-down vote on that?

BREAUX: Well, we're going to have it brought up, Bob, when we come back in January. I think Tom Daschle has indicated it's going to be one of the first things that we will deal with when we get back. And the question of whether they will have 60 votes -- I mean, again, you can't change the votes of the Senate.

I know some people would like to when it conveniences their position. But that's the rule of the Senate: If you don't have 60 votes and people want to filibuster it, they have the right to do that. That's the rules of the Senate.

NOVAK: OK, we're going to have to take a break, and when we return, we'll ask John Breaux of Louisiana: What's next in the war against terrorism?


HUNT: Senator Breaux, can the United States declare victory in the war against terrorism without Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar being apprehended and brought to justice or killed?

BREAUX: I think the short answer is probably yes, Al. I think that while these two leaders -- so-called leaders -- may still be out there somewhere, I think that we've sent a very strong message to the rest of the world that we're not going to tolerate terrorist activities.

And even more importantly, we're not going to tolerate countries that harbor these individuals. I think we're going to have to do more in other countries, other than just Afghanistan, because we all know that there are terrorist groups that exist in other countries today, outside of Afghanistan. I think we're going to have to go out to some of them, as well.

HUNT: Well, in that context, there's already talk of trying to topple the regimes in Somalia and then Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Would a United States effort, which might include ground troops, especially in Iraq, have the support of the American Congress and the American people to topple both those governments?

BREAUX: Al, that's a big question, obviously. I think that we have to proceed cautiously. We have to proceed carefully. We have to make sure that our allies are going to be with us. The Iraq situation, obviously, that's a big investment in manpower and equipment and everything else. We can't do it haphazardly, if you will, with out the strong support of our -- particularly our Arab colleagues in that part of the world, so this has to be a careful process and a procedure that we cannot just stop at Afghanistan with regard to terrorism. It has to be eliminated in other parts of the world, as well.

NOVAK: Senator Breaux, the war on terrorism has not met a cessation of domestic politics and that I site the recent statement by the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Terry McAuliffe and let's put it up on the screen.

He said: "The Republicans have taken a budget that had surpluses as far as the eye can see, and now have turned them into deficits as far as the eye can see."

Do you agree with that analysis by your party chairman, that the Republicans are responsible for the end of the surplus?

BREAUX: Well, Bob, as long as we have a democracy, we're going to have politics; and that's part of the process, and we can argue -- and I think that the Democratic leaders are doing the correct thing in a sense that we're not criticizing, in any way.

I think the president internationally, in his efforts on terrorism and I think the American population expect that. They expect us to support the president in time of war. But when it comes to domestic agendas, there are different priorities.

And for Democrats who think that the tax cut, for instance, the last time, was the wrong thing. That's legitimate areas to be critical in. Those are legitimate areas of politics, if you will, even during an international time of fighting terrorism. We're not criticizing him on the war effort. I think we've been very, very supportive, and I think that's the correct position.

NOVAK: But sir, I'd like to get your opinion, as a veteran member of the Finance Committee and expert on fiscal policy. Do you believe, just as a matter of fact, that the reason that the Republicans are responsible for turning deficits -- for turning surpluses into deficits?

BREAUX: Well, I think there's a lot of blame that can go around all over the place. I think that the tax cut we passed was not a mistake. I supported it. I helped craft it, along with Senator Max Baucus, the chairman of the Finance Committee.

I think when you have a recession, to try and put more money back into the economy to allow us as a government to spend more, to give more back to the individual to be able to spend more and to provide for their families is good economic policy.

There were other conditions that also occurred, that also contributed to the change in the economy of this country, and I think it's incorrect just to look at one item and say that's the reason. There were a lot of things that went into that.

HUNT: Senator Breaux, Enron, as you know, only months ago, one of the highest values companies in America, has gone bankrupt, top executives that walked away with millions from the sweetheart deals, while thousands of workers have lost their pensions. A lot of talk about the identification with George Bush and the Republican Party. They also have contributed to a number of Democrats. I think you were the 11th-largest Senate recipient of Enron funds over the last 12 years. They had street fair for you at a previous Democratic convention.

As you look at that company now, do you think Enron was merely a victim of an economic downturn or do you think it was an ethical and perhaps even criminal scam?

BREAUX: It wasn't a street fair; that was a Mardi Gras party, in the finest New Orleans tradition.

HUNT: I stand corrected.

BREAUX: The Enron thing is a mess and I think that it's going to be properly looked at at the very highest level. It's already been investigated by a number of congressional committees, and they should look into it. I think that some of the activities of some of the leaders of that corporation right before it tanked is absolutely unacceptable.

I mean, it was obvious to me that somebody knew what they were doing by bailing out of the company, while they were in leadership positions. The people who were hurt the most were the individuals or the every-day working guy and lady who had their lifetime savings invested in their stock. And there were some terrible things -- wrong things that were done. And I think it's going to come out.

HUNT: One thing that is alleged is that Ken Lay, the former CEO, and the company had an enormous amount of influence in helping Dick Cheney put together the Bush energy package, reportedly even some veto power over some measures.

Do you think that all ought to be revealed? Should Vice President Cheney have to tell the American public and the Congress what role Ken Lay and Enron played in formulating the Bush-Cheney energy policy?

BREAUX: Whether he should or shouldn't, I think he's probably going to have to. I think the political situation, I think, is going to require that they pretty much divulge everybody that, perhaps, they talked to and got recommendations.

I want to say, however, I have no problems talking to energy companies about getting recommendations on energy. I mean, what do you do? Talk to people who know nothing about the problem, and then listen to what they have to say?

I think you have to go to people that know something about the process and know something about developing energy to develop an energy policy. So I have no problems with the fact that they consulted with people in the business. I think they should have.

But I think also, they're going to have to say that and have to disclose it now.

NOVAK: Senator, one more question before we take another break. You were a former chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council. The centrist group tried to have a more moderate image for the Democratic Party. And the DLC's long-time executive -- chief executive, Al Fromm, was quoted on Friday as saying this, quote: "Some of the pre- Clinton perceptions are coming back." In other words, the left-wing perceptions of the Democratic Party. Does that worry you as it worries Al Fromm?

BREAUX: It does worry me. I think that the way we have to go about making government work is by forming coalitions from the center working out. I don't think you can come from the left.

The traditional bases of the Democratic Party is not large enough to create a majority. We have to appeal to moderates, to many mainstream individuals. And I think that was the success of Bill Clinton as a candidate, because he was able to build that type of centrist coalition.

And I think that's what the American people want. I think we make a serious mistake by only, I think, looking toward the narrow base of the party.

I think the Republicans make the same mistake, however, looking only to the base of their party. If we're only going to appeal to the base of each party, we're never going to get anything done.

NOVAK: We'll have to take another break. And when we come back, we'll have "The Big Question" for John Breaux of Louisiana.


NOVAK: "The Big Question" for John Breaux. Senator, the Republicans are targeting four of your colleagues, incumbent senators in South Dakota, Minnesota, Missouri and Iowa.

If you lose just one of those, it's possible you'll lose control of the Senate. Is that a possibility, losing control of the Senate, for the Democrats in 2002?

BREAUX: Bob, it is a possibility that we could lose control, but it's also, I think, a distinct possibility that we could gain a seat or two because, on the other hand, they have some Republicans that are also going to be targeted. And I think that the general feeling of the country is that the Democratic Congress is doing a pretty good job.

We have a potential to pick up some seats as well.

HUNT: Senator, 2004 seems light years away, I know, but as you survey the possible Democratic field, as of now, which one or two potential candidates might be able to carry Louisiana or might have a chance?

BREAUX: I think Joe Lieberman could. I think his moderate, mainstream, middle-of-the-road philosophy is acceptable in Louisiana. And I think that any candidate on the Democratic side that can appeal to the moderate middle as well as the traditional base of the party is going to do well in the South.

I think if they don't do that, they're not going to do well in the South, they're not going to do well around the rest of the country as well.

HUNT: Very quickly, could Al Gore do that?

BREAUX: Al could. I think it would be a little bit more difficult. I think Joe Lieberman actually would have a better shot. HUNT: John Breaux, thank you for being with us.

We'll take a quick break, and Bob Novak and I will be back with a comment or two.


HUNT: Bob, this was vintage John Breaux. He warmly embraced Tom Daschle's speech on Friday, but took issue with the central part of the speech to revisit the tax cuts.

NOVAK: Al, John Breaux is both the delight and despair of Republicans. They delight that he's willing to cross party lines on key issues; they despair that he always wants to compromise a little more after he's agreed to a compromise. Where does it end, they ask.

HUNT: Two things he said that were interesting: Dick Cheney is going to have to reveal the names of those energy officials who he consulted with in putting together the energy plan; and he came awful close to endorsing Joe Lieberman, while giving Al Gore the back of his hand.

NOVAK: I was very interested that -- Al -- that John Breaux is very concerned about the image of the Democratic Party's moving to the left after Bill Clinton. What's interesting is a lot of liberal Democrats I talk to think the party isn't liberal enough. Real fight inside the Democratic Party.

I'm Robert Novak.

HUNT: And I'm Al Hunt. Coming up at 7:00 p.m. on "CAPITAL GANG": the latest in the war against terrorism and the battle over the economy with Republican Senator Pete Domenici.

NOVAK: CNN's coverage of America's new war continues. Thanks for joining us.




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