OTB Interview with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist

I interviewed Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R, TN) by telephone this afternoon. Unfortunately, I do not have podcasting capabilities set up so the best I can do is a text summary. The questions are pretty close to verbatim as I had them written out ahead of time; the answers are my best attempt at summarization rather than a transcription.

He was delayed a few minutes by a floor vote but came to the interview thinking it had been “a very good day” on the Floor, most notably in defeating what he termed the “cut and run” legislation regarding the Iraq War.

OTB: What is your view of GOP chances at holding onto the House and Senate in the coming elections? Will negative views expressed in the polls about President Bush, the Iraq War, and Congress have a major impact on Republican incumbents or will all politics remain largely local?

Sen. Frist: He’s confident that the Senate Majority can be retained, along with the House. To do that, though, will require the Leadership to govern with “meaningful solutions” to the problems people are feeling. At the same time, there has to be a recognition that Democrats will attempt to obstruct any meaningful programs. Secondly, they need to “message better.” Doing that will require contrast: The party that wants tax cuts versus the one that wants tax hikes; victory versu cutting and running in Iraq; supporting patients, mothers, and doctors versus trial lawyers. If we can accomplish responsible governing and messaging appropriately, then victory is likely in November.

OTB: Many Republican supporters in the blogosphere and elsewhere are frustrated at the continuing rise in federal spending given twelve years of GOP control of Congress and six years of the Bush presidency. Why have Republicans been unable to restrain spending?

Sen. Frist: As he travels around the country talking to people, he finds that the War on Terror, energy costs/gas prices, and fiscal discipline are the three biggest issues. Overspending is a “huge issue.” $8 trillion debt, etc. We need “appropriate and aggressive responses.” While it’s worth noting that the war, Katrina, the recession, and other issues helped contribute to the deficit, we need to fix it.

A combination of “pro growth” policies and the “booming economy” will provide icreased revenues. Spending discipline is needed, too. “Discretionary spending was held flat last year” and it “will decrease this year.” Entitlements being cut substantially. He’s particularly excited about some policy initiatives on the table, like a revised line item veto.

OTB: Is there a way to do that without amending the Constitution? The Supreme Court struck the last one down.

Sen. Frist: Yes, because the new version has been “carefully crafted” to “pass Constitutional muster.” It would allow the president to rescind specific spending items but require those recissions to go back through Congress before becoming law.

Even better, there is a new plan by Sen. Judd Gregg called the Stop Over-Spending (SOS) Act of 2006. It’s a “new Gramm-Rudman” which will provide “statutory caps on spending” and other tools to help force fiscal discipline. [A PDF of the proposal is available here.]

OTB: My Congressman, Rep. Tom Davis, a Republican, is pushing through legislation to give the District of Columbia a seat in the House of Representatives, along with another seat for Utah to keep the party balance intact. What are the Senator’s views on that? Do you believe it consistent with the Constitution’s language allocating House seats only to the several States?

Sen. Frist: “The Constitution would argue against it” in the Senator’s view. Because it’s a House specific issue, though, he has not been especially involved in the issue.

OTB: Your colleague Rick Santorum broke the story yesterday afternoon that “The United States has found 500 chemical weapons in Iraq since 2003, and more weapons of mass destruction are likely to be uncovered.” Most are dismissing this as essentially “old news” and, certainly, not the WMD that we fought the war over. What’s your take on the story?

Sen. Frist: He blogged on this IMMEDIATELY once the document was declassified this finding. [See here for the blog post. Yes, he has open comments.] He believes it “critical for the public to know.” These are WMD. He quoted SECDEF Don Rumsfeld from today as saying these weapons are “Harmful to human beings” and not, as Saddam claimed, destroyed. Moreover, while they are of old vintage, they are “still being found today” . . . “in the hundreds”.

OTB: Given how central the WMD argument–and especially the charge that President Bush “Lied about WMD” to get us into the war, Why now? Why wasn’t this information released earlier–like before the 2004 election?

Sen. Frist: I don’t really know. One argument that’s being made is that, because there are still weapons out there–we’re still finding them–terrorists could theoretically find them.

OTB: But if that’s the case, shouldn’t the information still be classified? Are we confident that we’ve secured Iraq sufficiently that terrorists aren’t free to look for these munitions? Or do we think we have most of them now and the danger is diminished?

Sen. Frist: No, the House Intelligence Committee requested that this information be declassified and the executive complied.

OTB: It appears that the House is going to postpone voting on renewal for the 1965 Voting Rights Act on grounds that it singles out nine seats in the South, including the Senator’s home state. What are your views on this?

Sen. Frist: He personally supports the Voting Rights Act, which he calls “landmark legislation.” While the House is putting it off, he expacts that Senate Judiciary Committee will examine shortly after the 4th of July recess. The will study how it should be tweaked to address new realities.

OTB: Do we even need a Voting Rights Act in 2006? That people of color should be allowed to vote is hardly controversial.

Sen. Frist: It’s certainly something that there’s consensus on. We just need to keep some oversight on the issue and look at the law for its impact on Congressional redistricting and other issues.

OTB: Finally, how would you say the Republicans have done in living up to the spirit of the 1994 Contract with America?

Sen. Frist: He came to Congress in 1994. At the time, welfare reform was the biggest issue from the list, and that happend. Balancing the budget happened, although at a time of peace, massive defense cuts, and a booming economy. They’ve also done a good job at maximizing individual choice, which was implicit in several of the provisions of the Contract. Term limits was brought up but did not pass. He will nonetheless “honor my personal pledge to serve only 12 years.” He’s a “citizen legislator” and will be going home to Tennessee come January.

Our time was up at that point, indeed, I’d taken more than the ten minutes allocated, so I didn’t press him on how long he’d stay in the Volunteer State before starting a presidential bid.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bhoe says:

    Nice softball questions, James!

    Why didn’t you ask him about his questionable sale of HCA stock and his lying about owning it?

    Also, did he really say “Term limits WAS brought up”? You gotta love that Tennessee grammar!

  2. James Joyner says:

    Bhoe:

    The HCA thing has been out of the news so long, I’d forgotten about it. I’ve been pretty critical on that issue, although I haven’t followed up in it in months.

    The grammar is mine unless it’s in direct quotes. “Term limits was brought up” is perfectly fine, though. In that case, “term” isn’t an adjective modifiing “limits” but rather “term limits” is a compound noun.

  3. Don Surber says:

    Good job.
    Interesting answer on the DC issue

  4. John Burgess says:

    James, nice job!

  5. kevin whited says:

    Unfortunately, I do not have podcasting capabilities set up so the best I can do is a text summary.

    That could have been a podcast in a few easy steps…. signing up for the Gizmo Project (a VOIP service like Skype), calling the Senator by dialing out on Gizmo, recording it, converting it to mp3, and posting it. Simple!

  6. James Joyner says:

    kevin: Yeah, I need to learn that stuff. I couldn’t have done it yesterday because the call was at the office right after work owing to the Senator’s schedule and I have very limited ability to download and install software for security reasons.

  7. Anderson says:

    Nice softball questions, James!

    Actually, I thought JJ pressed him pretty well on the Santorum/Hoekstra “WMDs found!” nonsense, though quoting DOD’s response (“these are not the weapons we went to war over”) would’ve been nice.

  8. James Joyner says:

    Anderson: I didn’t phrase it as well as I might have but it’s in there:

    Most are dismissing this as essentially �old news� and, certainly, not the WMD that we fought the war over.

    I should have referenced the quote though.