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Fox News Interviews Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle

Fox News' Tony Snow and Juan Williams talk with Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., on Fox News Sunday:

SNOW: Joining us is a man we once described as the Clark Kent of American politics and whom we now address as Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

Also here, Juan Williams of National Public Radio and Fox News. Juan has the first question.

WILLIAMS: Senator Daschle, debate opens this weekend in the Senate on the patients' bill of rights. Last week on Fox News Sunday, Andy Card, the White House chief of staff, said the White House would veto the McCain-Edwards version of that bill. You've said there's no more give, in terms of your negotiation on patients' bill of rights with the White House.

So where do things stand now?

DASCHLE: Actually, Juan, I don't know I -- if I said that, it wasn't what I had intended.

I'm disappointed that anybody would lead off with a veto threat because we've come a long way. Five years ago, we introduced a good bill. We compromised with some of our Republican colleagues in the House, especially Congressmen Norwood and Ganske, and then a couple of years ago we compromised again with John McCain and other Republican senators.

So this is a case study in compromise. We've compromised on compromise. This is really the bill that was passed in Texas that President Bush said he'd sign if it ever got to his desk, during the debates last year.

So we feel very good about this bill. I'm open to any further conversations about how we might improve it, but I do think that we've got to have a bill that matters, that really means something. You can't really have rights without enforcement, and I think that's where some of the White House concern still lies.

WILLIAMS: But do you have the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster and to, in fact, even overcome a possible veto?

DASCHLE: Well, we go in this debate a little bit like we did with campaign reform. There's a lot of open territory there with regard to how people might vote. We aren't sure yet.

I think, at the end of the day, we're going to have a good vote.

SNOW: Senator Daschle, you were pretty clear-cut actually before. You said there was a compromise on a compromise, we can't compromise any more. But really the differences are pretty small. You agree on the health care stuff. This is all about lawyers, about how much you can sue and where you can sue. Is that really the most important part of the bill?

DASCHLE: Well, you know, I don't think, Tony, people want to go to court to get their health care, but that's really in essence what some people suggest, that you've got to go to court to make sure that the insurance companies do the right thing.

Chief Justice Rehnquist has said, look, let's not load up the federal courts anymore, let's ensure that the state courts have the opportunity to do what we've commissioned them to do. That, in essence, is what we're saying, let's allow the state courts, just as they do in Texas, to do what we're doing.

We've got to -- this is really a function of accountability, making sure that we can enforce what the rights are that we're now going to guarantee and that we hold everybody accountable. That's all this is.

SNOW: Well, but the other part is how much you can force people to pay out. The White House says, put a $500,000 limit. I think that's probably more like Texas. You say $5 million. Are you telling us today that there's some give in that?

DASCHLE: Well, what I'm saying is, let's get into this debate. I believe we've compromised a long, long way on this issue. A big part of it is, in whose jurisdiction should it lie? We think it ought to be the states.

But clearly, I think there is a real opportunity for us to move forward on a bill that has been around for a long period of time. I'm hoping, at long last, we can get this passed.

WILLIAMS: Senator Daschle, since Mr. Jeffords has come over, at least for caucus purposes, with the Democrats, there's been no reorganization of the Senate. So I'm wondering, how are you operating? And what pressures are there on you, as the Senate majority leader, to in fact now reach some deal with the Republicans so that you can get back to business?

DASCHLE: Well, Juan, I've told my Republican colleagues that I'm not going to jam them, I'm going to give them time to sort this out. These transitions are never easy. It took Senator Lott and I a couple of months to work out power-sharing.

But this is nothing compared to what we had to work through with power-sharing. That was unprecedented. The circumstances now are certainly not unprecedented, and we went through a lot of the same types of questions in the 1950s. Ao this is really a matter of whether we have the one-vote majority in committees, whether or not we revert back to power-sharing if something would change, whether or not we can work out staff and budgets. I think we can, and I think we're getting closer.

WILLIAMS: Well, now, what about the pressure coming from the GOP to say, listen, we want some assurances, we want them written down, and, in specific, concern about judicial nominations and the fact that they not get bottled up in committee but be able to reach to the Senate floor for a full vote?

DASCHLE: Well, I have said over and over that we're going to be fair. We are determined not to engage in any payback. We're not going to do what we think in many cases was done to our nominees in the last eight years. That isn't what we're all about.

What we want to do is move forward, assure that there are votes. But we don't want to abrogate the constitutional process of advice and consent, to make sure, absolutely certain that the judiciary committee has the prerogative and has the responsibility that it's been charged to take on. And that's what this is about.

SNOW: But, Senator, the constitutional obligation is for the entire Senate, it's not the Senate Judiciary Committee. And the founders never said, well, we want the Judicial Committee to decide who gets to serve as judges.

What have you told Republicans, other than that you'd be fair? Specifically, what have you promised them?

DASCHLE: Well, what I've promised them, Tony, is that we were going to assure them that every nominee, regardless of whether it's judiciary or executive, will have a fair hearing, will have an opportunity to be considered, and I can't go any further than that.

Obviously, we don't want to see happen what happened over the last five years, where some judges were kept without even the opportunity to be heard for over four years; where some senators, because you had secret holds, were given no opportunity to have the right to be considered and to be voted on. We're not going to do that. I don't think we should do that.

But I'm not going to engage or commit to an extralegal process that says, in some cases, regardless of what the Judiciary Committee does, we're going to bypass the committee and go straight to the floor.

SNOW: Why not? That's the agreement you just had.

DASCHLE: No, no, I don't think we've ever had an agreement of that kind.

SNOW: Did you not have an agreement that, when you had the 50-50 power-sharing agreement, that nominations would go to the Senate floor?

DASCHLE: No, what we had was an agreement that either the majority or the minority leader could make a motion to proceed to a nomination. And I obviously would be willing to look at something like that. But never did we have an automatic commitment that any nominee or any bill would come straight to the floor.

WILLIAMS: Senator, what about the House threat to do some investigations of the Republicans, especially the Bush White House, notably Karl Rove, and whether or not he had improper meetings with a company that he held stock in, Intel? Is the Senate likely to engage in such probes of White House staff?

DASCHLE: Juan, Democrats want to legislate, not investigate. Again, I will say as many times as I must say it that we're not going to engage in payback. There's plenty of temptation to do that, but we're not going to do that.

Obviously there is a very important responsibility for oversight onto issues, not personalities, not individuals. I'm not going to go after witch hunts. I think it's really important for us to legislate.

Now, our function of oversight responsibility is one we respect, but we're not going to get into vendettas, we're not going to go after individuals and engage in some of the practices of some of our colleagues.

SNOW: So, no investigation of Karl Rove in the Senate?

DASCHLE: I don't see one, no.

SNOW: Senator Lieberman is holding hearings into why the administration is not pursuing price controls in California. Do you think price controls are a good idea?

DASCHLE: Tony, I think price controls, under the responsibility of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, may be a good idea right now, in California. The circumstances there require that we take the kind of action that the federal energy regulatory commission is supposed to do.

So I would like to see them use their responsibility, use their authority to do what is required of them. They're not doing that today.

SNOW: You don't worry that price controls could produce what they tend to produce, which is further shortages?

DASCHLE: I think there could be that downside in the longer term, but I think what we've got right now is a system out of whack, an economic and a competitive system that isn't working right. When that happens, when you have these pressures and these countervailing circumstances, you have to have some supervision, I think, through the regulatory commission entrusted by Congress to do that. And that's exactly what FERC should be doing right now.

WILLIAMS: Senator, we've asked you a little bit about your relationships with Republicans in the Senate, but I wanted to ask you also about your relationships with Democrats, because you've got a number of Democrats who may be running for president. You've John Edwards of North Carolina, you've got John Kerry, you've got Joe Lieberman, you've got Zell Miller off on the side, who is a very conservative Democrat and not always reliable in terms of votes.

How are you doing managing the Democratic side and offering leadership of a Democratic vision?

DASCHLE: Well, I'll leave it to others to give you that answer, how am I doing. I feel very comfortable, Juan. I feel very good about our caucus right now. We're united, we're energized. We feel very good about what's happened over the last couple of weeks. I've had many conversations with Zell Miller about our future agenda, and he's excited about the debate on patients' bill of rights.

WILLIAMS: Will you give him a spot on Judiciary, as he wants?

DASCHLE: Actually, his staff called to say that they have no interest in a Judiciary Committee assignment. So that was a report that was erroneous. But Zell Miller's got a bright future in our caucus.

And as to the other colleagues, I think we need as many national spokespeople as possible. I encourage them to be out there, and I'm glad they are.

SNOW: Did you ever feel out John McCain about switching parties?

DASCHLE: Well, we've talked to a number of our Republican colleagues about the prospect of joining our caucus.

SNOW: I'm only interested in one.

(LAUGHTER)

Who have you talked to? With whom have you talked?

DASCHLE: Well, obviously, you know, it -- we've talked -- I don't think it's appropriate to single out any one individual, Tony, but I will say that...

SNOW: OK, we'll do more than one, then.

(LAUGHTER)

Lincoln Chafee?

DASCHLE: We've had conversations with Lincoln; we've had conversations with others, but only that.

DASCHLE: Obviously we just want them to know that they would be welcome in our caucus. They've made themselves clear in recent weeks that, at least in the short term, there's no interest in coming to our side. So we'll take it...

SNOW: "Short term." Any hints that there maybe some long-term prospects?

DASCHLE: No, there are no hints in the longer term either for that matter.

SNOW: Vieques Island. The president has said, OK, we're going to stop doing bombing exercises, but there's still a law on the books that says that a referendum on Vieques could force the Navy to get out. Do you worry about that as a precedent? And would you support efforts, now that the administration's made its decision, to go ahead and rescind that law?

DASCHLE: Well, I haven't talked to enough of my colleagues to come to a conclusion about rescinding the law, Tony. I think it was a decision that obviously ought to have been vetted a lot more with the Puerto Rican community and with the military. That didn't happen.

Now we're in a set of circumstances that I'm very pleased Carl Levin will be taking a look at. As chairman of the Armed Services Committee, he has already announced some hearings on Vieques, and I'm hoping that they will produce some road map onto how we go from here to there.

SNOW: Do you believe we should continue conducting exercises as we have been on Vieques?

DASCHLE: Now that that decision has been made, I think we ought to curtail them as quickly as possible. I don't know that we ought to drag it out.

I think we ought to look for an alternative site. I know that some sites have already been investigated. I'm very hopeful that we can find that site quickly, move to an alternative location and allow the Puerto Rican community at least some semblance of confidence that they know what the future holds.

SNOW: John Negroponte, he's the U.N. ambassador-designate by the president. Will he be confirmed?

DASCHLE: Well, I don't know that anyone can say for sure. We've asked for some additional information from the State Department. I understand that it's forthcoming. When that happens, of course, we'll be in a much better position to make up our minds.

SNOW: Let me put it this way. Why shouldn't he be?

DASCHLE: Well, I don't know that he should or shouldn't. I don't know the case well enough to say specifically. I do know that there are some questions about his past role as ambassador, and I think we have to now examine the information available to us and make a judgment. It would be premature to make any final conclusion until we have that information.

SNOW: Audits are showing the Department of Education may have, how shall be put this, mislaid as much as a billion dollars. Last week Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott said he thought it was appropriate to investigate. Do you think it is?

DASCHLE: Absolutely. I think any time there is a question involving resources, we've got to look to see whether or not the law was adhered to and whether or not there was any infraction that ought to be examined. This is one of those cases.

SNOW: Senator Jesse Helms last week put together an amendment saying Boy Scouts ought to be able to meet in schools. You voted against that. Why?

DASCHLE: Well, because I voted against the sponsorship of Boy Scouts. I think there's a difference between access, which we clarified, as you know, with the Boxer amendment. The Boxer amendment said, regardless of position on issues, every organization ought to have the right to access, not to sponsorship. And that was the difference between the two amendments.

SNOW: All right. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Clark Kent or not, thanks for joining us.

DASCHLE: Thank you, Tony.