Transcript: Sen. Mitch McConnell on Fox News Sunday

Following is a transcribed excerpt from Fox News Sunday, Dec. 15, 2002.

TONY SNOW, FOX NEWS: Embattled Senate Majority Leader-elect Trent Lott is under fire for artless comments delivered during a 100th-birthday celebration for Senator Strom Thurmond. Fox News chief political correspondent Carl Cameron has been covering this story.



Senator Lott continues his apology offensive Monday night with a 30-minute interview on Black Entertainment Television, but the Congressional Black Caucus — all House Democrats — are calling for his censure and ouster.

And now a prominent Republican senator, the number-two GOP member of the U.S. Senate, Oklahoma Senator Don Nickles, is going public with the suggestion that there needs to be a new leadership election.

On Friday, Senator Lott said he would not give up the helm.


LOTT: No senator has spoken to me about the possibility of me stepping down directly, publicly or privately.

LOTT: I'm not about to resign for an accusation that I'm something that I'm not.


CAMERON: He repudiated segregationism as immoral. He apologized again and again for suggesting at retiring Senator Strom Thurmond's 100th-birthday party 10 days ago that America would have been better off had Thurmond wont he presidency in 1948 when he ran as a segregationist.

Lott begged forgiveness and cast his remarks on Thurmond's birthday as an off-the-cuff and mistaken attempt to flatter the nation's longest-serving senator.

Twenty out of the 51 GOP senators called into a charged 90-minute conference call after Lott's mea culpa. Among their concerns, can Lott still lead? What about past remarks? Would ousting him as leader hurt the GOP even more? Would Lott quit the Senate entirely, which would let Mississippi's Democratic governor pick a Democratic replacement until a special election could be held that could ultimately lead in the GOP's one-seat majority being trimmed to a 50 - 50 tie?

The 20 Republican senators agreed to stand by Lott and to brace for the growing political war with Democrats, who the GOP predicts will continue to call for Lott's resignation to score political points.

Some urged a counter-attack on Democrats who have racially controversial pasts of their own. There are several.

But the drumbeat against Lott has not subsided. The New York Post has now joined the conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and conservative magazines, The National Review and The Weekly Standard, suggesting that Lott should leave. Conservative-morals maven Bill Bennett is suggesting that Lott's time has come to depart, as well.

And now Don Nickles, currently the assistant majority whip, who will leave the number-two slot and relinquish it to Mitch McConnell of Kentucky next month, has suggested that Lott should also face a second election to determine whether or not the GOP leadership should change.

And perhaps most tellingly, White House aides say if there were to be another election or a Republican challenge to Lott's leadership, the president would not come to Lott's side.


SNOW: Carl, thank you very much.

For more on this story, we now turn to the man slated to be the next assistant majority leader in the United States Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He joins us from Louisville.

Also here, Brit Hume, Washington managing editor of Fox News.

Senator McConnell, I know you have heard the quote, but we're going to read it again. Here is Senator Don Nickles speaking to ABC about the possibility of having another election for Senate majority leader.

He says, "Senator Lott has apologized profusely and rightly so. His comments did not represent Republican ideals. I accept his apology.

"However, this is bigger than any single senator now. I am concerned that Senator Lott has been weakened to the point that may jeopardize his ability to enact our agenda and speak to all Americans.

"There are several outstanding senators who are more than capable of effective leadership, and I hope we have an opportunity to choose."

Now, sir, under Senate rules, it is possible, of course, to go ahead — or Caucus rules — to go ahead and have such an election. Will you, in your capacity as the incoming assistant majority leader, resist any attempts to challenge Senator Lott?

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky.: Well, look, Senator Lott has apologized, at last count, on four different occasions for a terrible mistake that he made.

As you indicated, and as Carl indicated, Democratic senators, as recently as last year, have said much worse things. They've apologized, and apologies have been accepted.

MCCONNELL: I think the double standard here is somewhat grating. It seems to me in this country, we're a forgiving country, we ought to be able to accept when people make a mistake and they are genuinely contrite for that mistake, we ought to be able to accept it.

We just elected Senator Lott to a new two-year term as majority leader in November. You're right, it is possible under Senate rules to get another — a conference to discuss such a matter. But Senator Lott doesn't intend to resign, in my view, nor should he.

I think our time would be a lot better spent, when we get back in town after the 1st of the year, trying to pass President George W. Bush's agenda to change the country, rather than getting into a big squabble in the middle of our conference which will distract us and distract the president's agenda in the Senate.

SNOW: But, Senator McConnell, one important part of the president's agenda has been to do outreach to black and Hispanic voters. Republicans did poorly, about 9 percent of the black vote in the most recent election, and this is not likely to help.

I want you to listen for just a second to a comment that Strom Thurmond made in the 1948 presidential race. The significant issue, as you know, for Dixiecrats in that election was segregation. And here is one of the many things Senator Thurmond had to say back then.


U.S. SENATOR STROM THURMOND (R-SC): Ladies and gentleman, that there's not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the negroes (ph) into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches.



SNOW: Now, when Senator Lott says America would have been better off if the Dixiecrats had been elected, this was their hallmark, identifying issue. Does that not create problems in the president's quest to do outreach to black voters?

MCCONNELL: Look, what Senator Thurmond said was wrong in 1948, and it's certainly wrong today. And Senator Lott has said that that is not what he meant to be condoning in complimenting Senator Thurmond on reaching 100 years of age.

He has apologized four times, Tony. He obviously made a big mistake. We all understand that. He understands that. The question is whether we're big enough to accept this apology and move on.

And I think a big, divisive contest among Republican senators, when we ought to be pursuing the president's agenda — and after all, the president creates the image of the Republican Party. All of us senators would like to think we're important, but we're not nearly as important as the president.

And the president handled this very skillfully. Republican senators feel that the president dealt with this just right. And he is, after all, the image of the Republican Party in America today.

HUME: Senator McConnell, let's just stay with this possibility raised by Senator Nickles just for a moment. What would be the mechanics, what would be the process under which a new election for leaders could occur? Would it be a motion in the caucus? What would have to happen to generate a new vote?

MCCONNELL: Well, I'm not quite sure what the rules of the Senate are in terms of...

HUME: Well, this would be the rules of your caucus, wouldn't it?

MCCONNELL: Yes, of our caucus, right, I'm sorry. I'm not exactly sure what they are. But certainly, a certain number of members can convene a conference to discuss such a matter. But off the top of my head, I don't know what the procedure would be.

Senator Lott was elected to a two-year term. He's indicated he's not going to resign, and in my view, he shouldn't resign.

HUME: All right. Well, let me just...

MCCONNELL: I don't know exactly, Brit, what the procedure would be.

HUME: Well, presumably, somebody would have to make a motion in your caucus and the motion would have to be agreed to to go ahead and vote again.

But let's assume, just for the sake of discussion here, that it happened and a new vote were held. You've been in touch with a lot of senators in recent days, you've said as much publicly. What would be your view of the outcome of such a vote? Could he be elected again if there were another vote taken?

MCCONNELL: Well, this is a hypothetical I don't think we need to address.

HUME: I understand that, but you've probably — you've counted enough heads, you probably know the answer.

MCCONNELL: I think Senator Lott is going to continue as our leader. With the possible exception of Senator Nickles, listening to what he said as you reported earlier, I'm unaware of anyone who feels Senator Lott should step down. The members feel that we should accept his apology and move on with the president's agenda.

HUME: Well, Senator Lott, by the way — his office, at least, someone close to him has responded to the Nickles suggestion. Let's take a look at that: "Cynical exercise in opportunism, it's called."

Would you agree with that characterization that what Senator Nickles is doing — now, he has, everybody knows, for a long time wanted to be the leader. Do you think that's an exercise in opportunism?

MCCONNELL: Look, I think we ought to be pulling the conference together right now. This has been a big crisis; we're dealing with it. We need to try to keep everybody together, because we're going to be back in town on January the 7th trying to pursue the president's agenda.

MCCONNELL: We don't have a huge margin in the Senate. We only have 51 Republicans. We want the president to succeed.

The first six months are the best time for the president's agenda to move, and we need to stay together and pursue the president's agenda. That's what I think we ought to be spending our time on as we get back in town after the 1st of the year, Brit.

HUME: Well, this story has shown a remarkable resilience. It seems not be going away and seems to be, in some sense, mushrooming, even as Senator Lott issues this set of apologies.

Isn't it a reasonable question, Senator McConnell, whether, if this continues and Senator Lott continues to be the object of scorn in some quarters and even ridiculed as happened last night on Saturday Night Live, that his effectiveness really will be impaired?

MCCONNELL: Well, look, I think this is a difficult period for Senator Lott. He knows that. He's trying to put it behind him. He's going to be on BET Monday night and try to move forward with the president's agenda.

I mean, that's the most important thing. Republicans in the Senate would like to help President Bush achieve what he'd like to achieve for the county. If we descend into an awful lot of internal bickering, I don't see how that helps us advance the president's cause. And to me, that's the most important thing we can be doing.

SNOW: Senator McConnell, as you know, black voters are extraordinarily important, especially in Southern seats. We saw that, in fact, in the Mary Landrieu victory in Louisiana. This is clearly something that is going to be able to enable Democrats to get black voters passionate for the Democratic Party.

What would you suggest that Republicans do to do outreach to black voters to get them to come over and consider the GOP?

MCCONNELL: Well, I think that the national party, the Republican National Committee and various state parties around the country have made a major effort to do that over the years. We believe in a color- blind society, and we would like to have more prominent Republicans in our midst. We've had some very outstanding African-American Republicans — J.C. Watts, Condolezza Rice, Colin Powell.

I don't think we've done nearly a good enough job to attract particularly the black middle class. It seems to be open to our ideas. We need to keep working on that.

And it's important to remember that none of us senators make the image of the Republican Party. President George W. Bush is the image of the Republican Party, and everybody knows he's a very inclusive political figure who has reached out to African-Americans and to Hispanics and done it very successfully.

In my own case, as you know, I have an Asian-American wife. We spend a reasonable amount of time working with and reaching out to Asian-Americans. We want to have a multi-racial Republican Party, and I think we'll make significant progress toward that end under this president.

SNOW: Senator McConnell, there has been a suggestion on the part of the black caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, that there be a motion of censure against Senator Lott. You have intimated that if that happens, you'll go after Democrats who have said stupid things in the past. What good would that serve?

MCCONNELL: Well, look, as recently as in the last couple of years, not one but several Democrats have said things, in my view, much worse related to race than Senator Lott.

So if we're going to go down the road of trying to introduce a censure resolution against Senator Lott, I just want to remind everybody that's a fully amendable resolution...

SNOW: And you will...

MCCONNELL: ... and we'll be dealing about everybody's racially insensitive comments in the Senate over the years. I just don't think that's a constructive use of the time of the Senate.

SNOW: But that is what you would do if there were motion of censure against Senator Lott?

MCCONNELL: Well, of course. I mean, we would not limit it — you know, if we're going to get into the business of censuring members for racially insensitive comments, it certainly would not be limited to Senator Lott.

But I don't think we ought to be spending the time of the Senate on that, particularly when Senator Lott has already apologized, at last count, on four separate occasions for a terrible mistake which he is in deep pain over having made and is trying to deal with.

SNOW: The president wants to bring up again the name of Charles Pickering for a federal judgeship. He, of course, is somebody who was — in many ways, his patron is Senator Lott. Do you think Democrats might in fact try to filibuster that if it comes back to the Senate floor?

MCCONNELL: Well, first, the president will have to resubmit all of his judicial candidates. And I'm going to, as the number-two person in our party in the Senate, try to help the president's judges get confirmed.

I have no idea which names the president will send up after the 1st of the year. I think he'll do that fairly quickly, and we'll find out which names will be resubmitted.

SNOW: All right, Senator Mitch McConnell, thanks as always for joining us.

MCCONNELL: Thank you, Tony.