The assault on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi is more an embarrassment than a scandal and won’t hurt former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton if she decides to run for the presidency, Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend.
(This is not a legal transcript. Bloomberg LP cannot guarantee its accuracy.)
AL HUNT: We begin the show with Virginia Senator Tim Kaine. Senator, thank you for being with us.
SENATOR TIM KAINE: You bet, Al.
HUNT: You hate the sequester. You want a balanced deal with revenues and entitlements. Republicans won’t even go to conference on a budget. They say, read my lips, no new taxes. Can this impasse in any way be broken?
KAINE: Well they’re saying, read my lips, no discussion about the budget. As you know, Republicans banged on us in the Senate for years. The Senate won’t even pass a budget. I heard that as a Senate candidate. I said when we get in, I’m going to agitate to pass a budget. I got put on the Budget Committee on March 23. The Senate passed its first budget under sort of regular order for four years. And as soon as we did, we said OK, now let’s go to conference with the House and find compromise, and they won’t do it.
HUNT: Do you think that’ll be broken?
KAINE: Well we’re going to -- every day, we’re going to -- we’re going to point out their hypocrisy to them. And we’re starting to see a number of the Republican senators saying, come on, let’s have a conference. There’s no guarantee it’ll work, but we’ve tried everything else and they haven’t worked. Let’s go back to regular order.
HUNT: House Republicans are enacting a proposal dealing with the debt-ceiling limit that probably will be taken up in September or October that will prioritize payments. Now will that give them the leverage to force some kind of a fiscal deal?
KAINE: Well, I think their -- their challenge is the -- the fiscal dates keep getting pushed back because the deficit projections are coming down. That’s taking some of their argument away. But Al, I just go back to let’s just get back to regular order. What is the chance that a conference will work if it’s only 10 percent? Let’s get in a budget conference and do like I did when I was governor and I had two house budgets that were very different. Let’s sit and talk and try to find compromise. That’s what we ought to be doing.
HUNT: Senator, most experts who’ve looked at this say that to deal with this you have to cut back on entitlements and you have to raise revenues. Now Obama proposed last month Social Security and Medicare cutbacks. Took some heat from his own party. He got nothing in return from Republicans and some anger from Democrats. Was this a miscalculation on his part?
KAINE: Well, no. Because I think what the president has to do is show the path forward even if you’re going to have -- get shot at from the left and right, and presidents are used to that. He put a package on the table, and I would say it’s really four elements. It is targeted expense cuts, and you’ve got to be targeted about it. The sequester across-the-board stuff makes no sense. It is revenues, doing them the right way, not the wrong way. It is also reform of entitlements and infrastructure investments. Those are the four pieces of the package that we need to look for. And the Dems traditionally don’t want to talk about smart entitlements reforms. The Rs don’t want to talk about revenue, but we’re not going to get the kind of deal we need unless we -- we do both.
HUNT: Let me turn to a sensitive subject, guns. You have supported background checks on guns, which the Senate recently rejected. You also said this last month that the power of NRA is vastly overstated.
KAINE: It is. It is.
HUNT: If that’s true, can the Senate come back and enact the background check? Will they?
KAINE: Al, we can, and I believe we will. And I think -- to be precise, I think I said the power of the NRA leadership -
HUNT: You did.
KAINE: - is overstated. Because NRA members support background record checks. As you know, the NRA is headquartered in Virginia. We are -- we are a second amendment-loving state, and yet Virginians overwhelmingly believe in background checks. And here’s the reason why. We have scar tissue. The shooting at Virginia Tech, the worst shooting in American history, was -- it was a deranged individual who’d been adjudicated mentally ill and dangerous who was able to purchase weapons because of weaknesses in the background-check system.
We learned through our deep pain and shame, make a better background-check system. You keep people safer. And so we fixed some things in Virginia, but we got more to fix at the national level. That bill is still on the floor. The amendment that we wanted failed, but it’s going to be on the floor until January 2015.
HUNT: And you think -- you think there’ll be a -- you think there’ll be a successful effort to reverse that?
KAINE: I do. There will be a moment where we will either get some people to switch their mind or we’ll make a change to the bill that will satisfy a concern. The American public overwhelmingly support record checks, and the day will come when we’ll pass this bill.
HUNT: Senator, you’re also a member of both Foreign Relations and Armed Services. Let me ask you about Benghazi. Because now it was revealed in hearings this week the deputy ambassador over there said that we knew from the beginning that it was terrorists. The State Department actually scrubbed and rewrote some of the talking points. Is it clear at least that the White House and Susan Rice misled by the public five days after this incident?
KAINE: Well Al, you also know that the president the day after the incident said this was an act of terror. So -- so some of the battling over the wordsmithing about who said what, it could be embarrassing, and that -- that will play out, but the real issue is how to fix it. The accountability review board that was empaneled in the aftermath of this -- this horrible loss of great Americans, has made a series of very important recommendations to improve embassy security.
HUNT: So you think it’s an embarrassment for us, but not a scandal?
KAINE: I do not think it’s a scandal. It could be an embarrassment. But what would be the scandal is if Congress spends time focusing on that and not fixing the things that need to be fixed that were laid out in very clear detail by that accountability review board.
HUNT: If -- if Hillary Clinton should run for president, would this hurt her?
KAINE: I don’t think -- again, she -- she -- one of my first hearings on foreign relations was the hearing where she came to talk about Benghazi. The degree to which she took responsibility and expressed just her own remorse over the loss of these great Americans was very palpable. And if people try to in a casual way use this against her and they see the degree that she really feels for her people and cares about that State Department, I think they’ll view it as a really shallow and -- and cynical attack.
HUNT: Let’s turn back to your state. Washington Post polls show that Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe trailing the very conservative Republican in the governor’s race, the seat that you once held. Why is your candidate having such trouble?
KAINE: Well, they asked me that a couple days ago, Al. They said, what do you think about this Post poll on Terry McAuliffe’s governor race? I said I wish I had seen those numbers in my governor’s race in 2005 because I was like double digits down six months out and ended up winning by 5 points. It’s early.
HUNT: Do you think Terry will win?
KAINE: I do. I do. I think it’ll be close, and it’ll be close because off-year races in Virginia have low turnout. So a presidential race, we were up at 65 to 70 percent. The norm in Virginia in a governor’s race the next year would be more in the 40 to 50 percent, and lower-turnout races are more challenging. But he’s got a good campaign. Virginia has changed. Basically, the state electorate is better for us in 2013 than it was in 2005. I’m working hard for him. So is Senator Warner. It’s going to be a close race, but I think we’ll win.
HUNT: Another question. You were deeply bothered by reports of sexual assault in the military. There’s been some action taken, but it seems to be rather pervasive, particularly in the Air Force. Should more heads roll?
KAINE: More heads roll and more -- more procedures should be changed. And we’re right now, as you know, writing up the authorizing bill for the defense budget for 2014. And you can be sure this -- this is something that we’re going to put into that authorizing bill.
HUNT: When you say heads roll, what do you mean?
KAINE: Well look, we already -- there’s already one who has been moved aside when -- it is almost surreal that the Air Force official in charge of dealing with sexual assault crimes is -- is arrested for sexual assault. Now an arrest isn’t -- isn’t a proof of guilt, and yet still even an arrest in that circumstance was strange.
HUNT: Do you still have confidence in the secretary of the Air Force?
KAINE: On this issue, we’ve got to see a dramatic upgrade. We have to. Secretary Hagel did something very positive right out of the gate. He went in and sort of in an executive way changed the ability of the sort of overseeing authorities to reverse decisions of military juries, which had happened in a couple of instances in the Air Force. And so that was a very positive thing.
HUNT: Senator Kaine, thank you so much for being with us today.
KAINE: Absolutely, Al.
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