Q&A: The Majority Leader Lays Out His Game Plan

Tom Daschle talks about taxes, health care, and more

Democrats haven't had much to cheer about since the 2000 election. But party spirits have risen dramatically since South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle landed in the Senate Majority Leader's seat on June 5. A skilled tactician noted for his quiet intensity, Daschle has become a major headache for the Bush White House. In a July 10 interview with Washington Bureau Chief Lee Walczak and Congressional Correspondent Lorraine Woellert, the party's new point man laid out his agenda and promised to challenge the Administration on issues ranging from education to health care.

Q: These days, Democrats style themselves as the party of fiscal restraint. You talk of erasing the national debt, you worry that President Bush's tax cut will raise interest rates. So how come every time Bush sends you a bill, you complain that it's underfunded?

A: We were making the argument that it was really a choice between education, a prescription-drug benefit, and the tax cut. When the budget was drafted, we carved out special investments for these priorities. We did agree [with Senate Republicans] to $300 billion for prescription drugs. That wasn't as high as we wanted.

Q: That's still triple the President's number.

A: But it's within the budget we passed. Our view is that we've got to pay down the debt. What we had recommended was to take the projected surplus and use a third for paying down the debt, a third for the tax cut, and a third for investments. Regardless of what framework you have for changing projections on the surplus, that formula still works. Now, the President has proposed that the tax cut take virtually all of the surplus. From where does our investment in these [social areas] come?

Q: The President wants to keep discretionary-spending growth at about 4%, but Democrats say that's not enough.

A: That's not accurate, actually. What they want is a far greater increase in defense spending than 4%. That number is correct for the defense nondiscretionary accounts, [but] he is arguing for a much more robust increase for defense.

Q: Still, last year, total spending rose at about 8%. What should a more sensible figure be?

A: We want to take into account two things--the cost of living and the growth in population. If you don't take those two things into account, you have a negative [number].

Q: So the magic number is...?

A: Well, I think that depends on the specific issue. With health and education, it's probably closer to 6%.

Q: Democrats predict that the Administration will have to breach the Medicare "lockbox" because the economic slump has reduced tax revenues. But the slowdown looks temporary, and the lockbox is mainly a political construct. Are Democrats playing "gotcha" games?

A: The unified budget makes a supposition which I don't think anyone's prepared to make anymore, which is that the Medicare and Social Security surpluses are there for the asking for whatever other purpose we want to use them for. Now, the Congressional Budget Office tells us we're within $5 billion or $6 billion of going into Medicare for the first time in years. That's a very precarious position to be in, given the commitment both parties had made.

Q: The ink has barely dried on Bush's tax cut. Is it politically feasible for Democrats to talk about repealing provisions?

A: Can you legitimately take Medicare funds for other purposes? Is that any more politically feasible?

Q: So you are going to reopen the tax cut?

A: There are three options. We've talked about two. The other is to find offsets for what we are doing so we don't use Medicare funds and we don't open up the tax cut.

Q: Campaign-finance reform is dead in the House for now. What's your next move?

A: What I would do--and I'm going to do this with a lot of other bills if I have to--is take the Senate-passed version, add it to [an unrelated] House-passed bill that [Republicans] really want to get done, and send it to the President that way. I'm not threatening, but if we have to use innovative ways to get the job done, then we're going to.

Q: You're gung-ho on adding a new drug entitlement to Medicare. But doesn't that give up the real inducement for reforming the system?

A: That concedes that we need radical reform. I think the Medicare system works every bit as good as any HMO.

Q: That well, huh?

A: I would say better. Far better. I guess I don't subscribe to this notion that we have to radically overhaul Medicare. I argue that prescription-drug coverage is a reform because so much of what we provide in health care today is outpatient treatment through medications. This is just modern medicine writ large.

Q: The Democrats' energy bill includes tax breaks to boost the demand for renewables and alternative fuels. But such efficiency tax credits often flop. Shouldn't we take a more market-driven approach?

A: There have to be market-driven answers. But I also recognize that just about every fuel known to man has been the beneficiary of subsidies, from the oil-depletion allowance to the tremendous government investment in nuclear R&D. You could make an argument that excessive subsidization is not in anybody's best interest. We have to find the balance.

Q: Does increased production mean more drilling?

A: In environmentally safe areas, additional drilling is going to have to be part of the plan.

Q: Democrats have criticized some of Bush's judicial choices as too conservative. Have you identified any nominees who you think ought to be reconsidered?

A: No. I've always said that we want to be as fair as we can be as to how the nominees are being considered. My hope is, even though there's no litmus test, that they represent the diversity we expect in this day and age, that there should be an emphasis on experience and integrity, and that they come largely from the mainstream. People on either end of the political spectrum don't make the most qualified judges. But no, we're not going after anybody. We are not going to participate in payback.

By Stanley Holmes in Seattle

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