Transcript: Sen. John McCain on 'FNS'

The following is a transcribed excerpt of "FOX News Sunday," for May 22, 2005.

CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS: The Senate is set to vote Tuesday on the so-called nuclear option, to change the rules on judicial filibusters (search). But about a dozen senators have been negotiating to try to avoid a showdown. And right at the center of that effort is our first guest.

Senator John McCain (search) joins from us his home state of Arizona.

Senator, welcome back to "FOX News Sunday."

U.S. SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZ.: Thank you. Good morning, Chris.

WALLACE: Let's start with the basic facts as we sit here today.

Do you have a deal among senators of both parties to head off the nuclear option in the Senate this week?

MCCAIN: We do not. We'll be meeting again tomorrow evening and that'll be our last opportunity.

I believe that it's entirely possible. We have more than 12 senators, people of good will who trust one another, who want to avoid this nuclear explosion which could harm the institution in the long run, and in the short run keep us from doing the business that the people sent us there to do.

WALLACE: What's the biggest holdup, sir?

MCCAIN: I think it's trying to determine exact language which will both protect the rights of the minority — whether that be Republicans or Democrats, as majorities have swung back and forth over time — but also to correct, frankly, what was an abuse of the filibuster, which was the case on the part of the Democrats when they blocked so many of the president's nominees.

I strongly believe that the president's nominees deserve an up- or-down vote and that there was an abuse of that power, and we need to fix that. And we need to do it with an agreement where we can all trust one another.

The institution, Chris — I don't have to repeat this, but it's important to always keep in mind — functions on trust and taking people's words, and by what we call "unanimous consent." And we are having difficulty coming up with exact language which would portray that desire.

It's tough.

WALLACE: I want to get to some of those issues in just a second, but let me just ask you sort of the next question, which is if you don't reach agreement, does the majority leader, Bill Frist, have the 50 Republican votes he needs, plus the tiebreaker from Vice President Cheney to, in fact, impose the nuclear option?

MCCAIN: I don't know the answer to that because there's several Senators who have not indicated exactly how they're going to vote.

So I don't know.

WALLACE: Let's talk about a couple of the issues that have come up in your negotiations and, in fact, you've already referred to them a little bit.

One idea, apparently that's come up, is that some of the president's nominees would be approved, and some of the them arbitrarily would be killed.

Senator, isn't that awfully cynical to say, forget the merits of thinks individual nominees, the president gets so many approved, and the Democrats get to kill so many?

MCCAIN: Well, actually, that's not the outlines of the agreement.

The agreement doesn't prohibit votes on any of them, but there would be an agreement that there would be votes to move forward and particularly on the overwhelming majority. And then the others would be related to the desires and the feelings of the Democrats themselves.

So it's an effort to unblock this process and give as many as possible an up-or-down vote, and don't prohibit an up-or-down vote for any of them. And then that would be up to the other side.

WALLACE: But in other words, there would be a provision that would allow the defeat of at least several of these nominees?

MCCAIN: No, it would mean that there would be a commitment to let most of them go under any circumstances, and then there would only be a couple of others that would then be a decision made as to whether they would continue to filibuster those or not.

It's very possible that there would be a vote on all of them. It's also possible that one or more of them would not reach the Senate floor because of other difficulties that their nomination faces.

Look, we're talking about changing the rules of the Senate with 51 votes, which has never happened in the history of the United States Senate.

The Democrats have tried to change the rules when they were in the majority. They tried to get a two-thirds vote.

If you have 51 votes, changing the rules of the Senate, nominations of the president is next, and then legislation follows that. And we will now become an institution exactly like the House of Representatives. That's not what our founding fathers envisioned when they created a bicameral legislature.

WALLACE: Let me ask you about the institution as a whole. There was a recent poll that came out that showed that 33 percent — only 33 percent of those surveyed approve of the job that the Congress is now doing.

If, in fact, this next week plays out the way you don't want it to play out — you get the nuclear option, the rules are changed, the Democrats start to tie things up and energy legislation, Social Security reform, a lot of issues that touch people's daily lives get blocked — what's the impact going to be on the public's view of the Senate, and who do you think is going to get hurt worse, the Republicans or the Democrats?

MCCAIN: I don't think anybody knows the answers to that.

It's interesting. You see, it depends on how the question is asked.

If you ask the question, "Does the president deserve up-or-down votes on his nominees?" Majority: yes.

You ask the question, "Should the right of a minority to, quote, 'filibuster' be preserved?" The majority: yes.

So I don't think any of us know exactly how this is going to play out.

WALLACE: But I guess what I'm asking is: What is the impact do you think it would be on the institution if while you're involved in this food fight up here on Capitol Hill, an awful lot of the people's business isn't getting done?

MCCAIN: I think it would be, again, very bad.

I note that polling numbers and approval for Congress is down to where it was in 1994.

I think we have, unfortunately, a tendency to forget that we're in a war. Young Americans are dying every day. We have the threat of Al Qaeda and the war on terrorism. We have an unprotected border. We have Social Security, not to mention a burgeoning deficit.

Understandably, to me, the American people's priorities are not those being displayed by the Congress today, particularly in the United States Senate.

The level of rhetoric has reached a point that's really not helpful to the institution or to the individuals who are part of it.

WALLACE: Senator, I want to get a little bit to the war on terror in a moment, but I want to ask you one last question about this.

And I want to show you a statement that Congressman Trent Franks, a Republican from your state of Arizona, had to say about you recently.

He said, "I can only say to you that the conservative wing of the party will never forget if he," meaning you, "caves in to the Democrats outrageous filibusters here."

As someone who is at least thinking about running for president in 2008, if you vote, as you clearly are going to, against the nuclear option, won't that rule you out for some conservatives?


MCCAIN: Not in the slightest. I travel a lot around country, and I get very good support and appreciation from conservatives. I talk to a lot of conservative audiences.

Look, as you said, I'm not making a decision on running for president. But I have great confidence that the appeal that I have to conservatives in my party is that I'll do what I think is right.

And I've always done what I think is right for the country. And I will not allow political ambition to in any way impact that.

And I have a very strong base amongst social conservatives, and it's interesting that polling numbers amongst Republicans is very strong from all parts of the Republican Party.

So, I frankly think that for me to allow my ambitions to impact on an issue of this magnitude would be not a proper thing to do.

WALLACE: Senator, let's move to another subject. How seriously do you take the release of those pictures of Saddam Hussein?

MCCAIN: I regret it deeply. It is a violation of the Geneva Conventions for the treatment of the prisoners of war, and we obviously have to make sure that something like that doesn't happen.

But what bothers me also is that the Abu Ghraib pictures and others have a cumulative effect over time.

But having said that, Chris, let me just say that the people who are criticizing us most are also countenancing a kind of a warfare where people blow up babies, where innocent civilians are killed, where the quality of life of the individuals in Iraq and, to a lesser degree, in Afghanistan are devastated by their terrorism and their attacks and this kind of a despicable kind of warfare that's going on, encouraging people to take their own lives, to take the lives of others.

So I'd like to see a little more criticism from some of our friends who are so critical about what has happened in Abu Ghraib and these pictures of Saddam Hussein.

It's an unbalanced criticism.

WALLACE: I think that's a very important point, and I'm glad you made it, sir.

But let me ask you, on the flip side of it, you know, there are stories about U.S. abuse of prisoners that keep coming out, and in fact the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, is coming to Washington tomorrow and says he's going to raise with President Bush a brutal story that has come out about the mistreatment of two prisoners in Afghanistan — it happened three years ago, but it took two years for the U.S. military to investigate.

Do you think the Pentagon is doing a good job of investigating these cases as far as they go up the chain of command?

MCCAIN: It's hard for me to know, because we have not had the complete information in the Senate Armed Services Committee that we need to make that judgment. We have a problem. We have a problem with appearance or reality, whichever is the case.

I think the Pentagon made a major step forward by issuing uniform rules for the treatment of prisoners.

Unfortunately, when I asked if that held for other agencies of government, I didn't get an affirmative answer.

We have to have uniform rules. We have to have indoctrination. We have to have well-trained and disciplined interrogators, as well as personnel that are supervising these prisoners.

We acknowledge we have a problem. We acknowledge that it needs to be fixed.

But I also say, let's be balanced, let's have some condemnation of the things that are going on in Iraq and Afghanistan which are absolutely in violation of the Koran in every way.

WALLACE: Senator McCain, we're going to have to leave it there.

And, as we end this segment, we want to note that on Memorial Day weekend the A&E network will premiere an original movie called "Faith of My Fathers" which is based on your best-selling book. Have you seen it, Senator?

MCCAIN: Yes, I did.

WALLACE: And does the Hollywood John McCain, is he better- or worse-looking than the real John McCain?

MCCAIN: A lot better-looking.


WALLACE: Well, then, good for that. Right, sir?

MCCAIN: Yes, indeed.

WALLACE: We look forward to watching. And thank you, as always, for talking with us. Always a pleasure to have you with us, sir.

MCCAIN: Thanks, Chris.