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Transcript: Senate Majority Leader Frist on 'FNS'

The following is a partial transcript from the May 28, 2006, edition of "FOX News Sunday With Chris Wallace":

"FOX NEWS SUNDAY" HOST CHRIS WALLACE: And on this busy and controversial week in Congress, we're joined now by the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist.

Senator, welcome back to "FOX News Sunday."

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER BILL FRIST, R-TENN.: Chris, good to be with you.

WALLACE: Let's start with immigration. Here's what you said after the Senate passed a comprehensive package this week. Let's take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FRIST: This is a success for the American people. It is a success for the people who hope to participate some day in that American dream.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WALLACE: Senator, is it a success for the American people that illegal immigrants are going to be able to collect Social Security benefits and even tax credits on past illegal work?

Is it a success for America that American officials must confer with Mexican authorities before they start building a fence on the border?

FRIST: Chris, the success for the American people is that we've got about 2 million people coming across our borders every year illegally. We don't know who they are. We don't know really what their intentions are. We've got hemorrhaging coming across our border.

So the success for the American people is that our government, the United States Senate, as a first step, have in a comprehensive way addressed a problem that is economic, that is humanitarian, and that has to do with our national security.

It has to be comprehensive, because that's the only way we can stop this hemorrhaging coming across our borders.

WALLACE: But how do you respond — and I don't want you to go into each individual thing, but there are a lot of measures there which I mentioned. I'm getting a lot of e-mail about them — I'm sure you are as well — where people are saying this is a giveaway, we're a sovereign nation.

FRIST: Well, you know, I don't agree with everything in the bill. What I do agree with is that the Senate approach is saying that we've got to be tough on our borders, stop hemorrhaging across our border. Yet we've got to address the fact that we're a magnet to pulling people across the border by not enforcing the laws at our workplace.

The reality that you can't just take 12 million people here, millions of whom are fully assimilated into our society, and send them back, and the fact that we in this country do need a strong temporary worker program with people coming to this country on our farms, in our entertainment industry, in our hospitality industry, in our construction industry.

Those are the realities today. It's not necessarily politically popular. It's certainly not easy, as we've seen on the floor. But I can tell you the bill that came off the Senate floor — not perfect; I don't agree with everything in that bill — does reflect the overall will of the Senate.

It's a first step. We're going to go to conference. The president obviously is going to get very involved. And with that, we'll be able to address what is a national security, economic and humanitarian issue.

WALLACE: All right. As you point out, now the real hard work starts. You've got to work out a compromise with the House.

On Friday, the lead House negotiator, Congressman Sensenbrenner, rejected the path to citizenship as a non-starter. Here he is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SENSENBRENNER: Well, I reject the spin that the senators have been putting on their proposal. It is amnesty.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WALLACE: Would you, would the Senate, accept as a compromise a bill that takes out the path to earned legalization?

FRIST: Chris, I think we need to — if the goal is national security, for example, it is mighty hard to say that we've got 12 million people living out around this country, out in the communities of our viewers today, and say you stay in the shadows, everything will be okay.

I think, you know, politically it is tough, and thus when we say comprehensive, temporary worker program, employer workplace, strong at the border, we do, I feel, have to address the 12 million people to bring them out of the shadows. So we'll see what happens.

The Senate has taken a position which is the position that I just outlined — not perfect. There are things in there I don't agree with. The House has taken a position that does not look at the temporary worker program.

WALLACE: But I'm going to try and press this. Are you ruling out any bill that would strip out the earned legalization?

FRIST: No, I'm not going to — I'm going to basically say we've seen the will of the Senate reflected. We've seen the House will. Although the majority leader in the House side, Majority Leader Boehner, said let's get together, let's look for common ground and let's move ahead — again, it may not be politically popular in every single case, but let's do what's right for the American people.

WALLACE: Your conservative critics say that you have flip- flopped on precisely this issue, and they point out what you said last October when you were asked what should happen to the millions of illegals who are here in the country right now. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FRIST: They should be sent back. And, again, I will say, in principle, I oppose amnesty.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WALLACE: Now, you were still saying that same thing as recently as this March, two months ago, and yet you voted precisely for what you were then calling amnesty this week.

FRIST: You know, what we have done and what I did vote for is basically say if you've been here less than two years, you do get sent back. If you came across this border in the last two years — from two to five years, you go into a temporary worker program.

If you're here greater than five years and you are willing to put another six years and then another five years up for a probationary period, and willing to pay a $3,000 fine, willing to learn English, willing to pay back taxes, willing to have a job, have to have a job, then you can be eligible for citizenship.

So let me go back just real quickly. In October of last year, the same time that clip was, I said we were going to take a border security, strong border security, to the floor. I did exactly that four weeks ago.

I said at that time that we were going to build it out with a strong temporary worker program. We did exactly that — with strong employer workplace program. We did exactly that.

One last thing real quick is I think the debate has matured a lot. The American people are paying attention and I expect that to continue as we go to conference.

WALLACE: But, Senator, why was it amnesty to provide for these millions — and the vast majority of them are the ones that have been here more than five years, so it's precisely that group. Why was it amnesty in October? Why was it amnesty in march? And yet you voted for it in May?

FRIST: No, but we did change it. And again, I hope that you and your viewers pay attention to what we actually did in the conference.

The bill that we put on the floor was to get 12 million people here, just leave them out, really no essential barriers there, and what we did is took that bill with compromise and made it into the zero to two years, you are deported, you go back home — three to five years — all that's new. That was amendments in the bill.

So the bill was radically changed — again, not perfect. I call amnesty giving somebody who broke the law a leg up on citizenship. And that's not — this bill does not do that.

It does give them a 16-year period in which they have to go through certain hoops before they're eligible for citizenship — five years in the country, six years' probationary period, five years with a green card before they get to citizenship.

WALLACE: I want to ask you, because — I want to move on to other subjects, but I want to ask you two more immigration questions, so let's try and go through these quickly.

One compromise that some House members are now suggesting is a phase program: Start the border enforcement now, delay the guest worker program until you've certified the borders are acceptable. You are secure. You voted for that...

FRIST: I did.

WALLACE: ... in the Senate and you lost.

FRIST: Yes, I lost.

WALLACE: Would you accept that as part of a Senate-House compromise?

FRIST: Well, no, I personally would, because I think, first and foremost, you've got to lock down the borders. You can't allow this hemorrhaging of millions of people. We caught 1.2 million people last year.

For every one coming across, at least two snuck across. We've got to lock down the borders. I do think we need a strong temporary worker program right now, and I think if we want to keep food on the table right now, that people can come here — temporary, where people come for a period of time and go back home.

And I do lastly think the employer workplace — we have to enforce the law of the land. We're not enforcing the law of the land today.

WALLACE: One more housekeeping question. Some Republicans have suggested put this whole conference off until after the November election.

FRIST: No, no. You can't do that. I know, first of all, politically — I know the politics are out there. And I know people ultimately have to do what's in their best interest for their district or for their state.

But we've got a national security problem. It's an economic problem. It's a humanitarian problem. People are dying coming across these borders.

And if we as a governing party or as the United States Congress can't address these tough issues head on like we did in the United States Senate for four weeks, with good debate, open debate and amendment, improving the bill — still not yet a perfect bill — then we really shouldn't be here. It's not politically popular all the time, but we've got to do what's right for the American people.

WALLACE: You met with Attorney General Gonzales on Friday to discuss the FBI raid exactly a week ago of Congressman Jefferson's office.

Do you believe that a raid by the executive branch with a court order violates the separation of powers? And what did you discuss with Attorney General Gonzales?

FRIST: No, no, no. I don't. Was this a raid? I'm not sure if it was a raid or not. I mean...

WALLACE: They went into his office and...

FRIST: If somebody has a search warrant...

(CROSSTALK)

WALLACE: ... files.

FRIST: ... if there are accusations of bribery, of having lost the trust, abused the trust of the American people, criminal activity, no House member, no senator, nobody in government should be above the law of the land, period.

And a search warrant was obtained to go in. So to answer your question, no, I don't think it abused separation of powers. I think there's allegations of criminal activity, and the American people need to have the law enforced.

I don't think it was a separation of powers question. I've looked at it very carefully. There is in the Constitution, in Article I, this whole speech and debate wording. Since this type of event has never occurred in Washington, in the United States Congress, I think we all need to look and see what the clause — what the case history on that clause means, and that's where the debate is today.

I think we've seen it pretty much put to bed now, I hope. I trust our Department of Justice in looking over and talking to the attorney general. I think they acted appropriately. I do think that we in Congress need to make sure whatever precedent this does set is one that shows that no congressperson is above the rule of law.

WALLACE: So specifically, you're OK, then, with this?

FRIST: I'm OK and I think the president handled it well, because we had tempers flying, and, I guess, people saying that he might retire, resign, and back and forth.

We don't need to be doing that. And so the president came in and put a pause, 45 days, to let things settle down. And I think over the last 24 hours things have really settled down. And I think the lawyers will decide.

I don't think it's an issue of the separation of powers or balance of powers, and so I'm comfortable where we stand today.

WALLACE: Finally, let's talk some politics. How much danger are Republicans in of losing control of the Senate this November?

FRIST: Well, I think right now, when you've got energy prices high, when you've got people, millions of people, coming across our borders today, when you've got the war in Iraq that people are uncomfortable in the sense of seeing people dying every day, not fully realizing the great progress that has been made in the last few weeks in standing up their government, that the environment is very, very tough.

I think our responsibility is to govern with meaningful solutions, taking the tough problems like immigration head on, dealing with them in a way that is civil, that is respectful, will earn and help re-earn the trust of the American people.

Our agenda will be to support our troops overseas, secure peace and safety at home, securing prosperity. The economy itself is booming — 5.3 million jobs in the last three years, 4.7 percent unemployment, lower than average of the '60s, '70s and '80s. That's the good news that's out there to counterbalance the other.

We need to demonstrate to the American people that we can govern with meaningful solutions on the tough problems that are out there.

WALLACE: All right. You talk about a lot of issues that affect people's lives, and yet you're going to bring two constitutional amendments to the Senate floor in the next few weeks, one to ban same- sex marriage, another to ban flag burning, both reportedly in the papers to mobilize your conservative base.

I have to tell you I talked to a Republican senator this week who said he may vote for both of them but said they're both pandering. Are gay marriage and flag burning the most important issues the Senate can be addressing in June of 2006?

FRIST: Let me tell you what the agenda is real quick. Secure America's safety here at home. I mentioned supporting our troops overseas, making sure we pass that supplemental bill, making sure we tighten down our borders, securing America, a healthier America, so we'll continue...

WALLACE: All right, but let's get to these two amendments.

FRIST: No, but let me tell you, because right now there's no prioritization there. Securing America's values — and I hope tomorrow and today, as people see that American flag — and I'm going to Arlington Cemetery tomorrow, and I'm going to see that American flag waving on every single grave over there.

And when you look at that flag and then you tell me that right now people in this country are saying it's OK to desecrate that flag and to burn it and to not pay respect to it — is that important to our values as a people when we've got 130,000 people fighting for our freedom and liberty today? That is important.

It may not be important here in Washington where people say well, it's political posturing and all, but it's important to the heart and soul of the American people.

WALLACE: Sir, sir...

FRIST: Marriage, let me just — marriage you asked about.

WALLACE: OK.

FRIST: Right now, why marriage today? Marriage is for our society — that union between a man and a woman is the cornerstone of our society. It is under attack today.

Right now there are 13 states who passed constitutional amendments in the 1.5 years to protect marriage. Why? Because in nine states today, activist judges, unelected activist judges, are tearing down state laws in nine states today.

That's why I will take it to the floor of the Senate — simply define marriage as the union between a man and a woman.

WALLACE: All right. We have less than a minute left. It's no secret that you're considering a run for president in 2008. You were asked recently about how difficult it is to be the Senate majority leader and considering a presidential run, and you responded with not one but four terribles.

You're going to be out of the Senate next year. You've decided not to run again. Will we see Bill Frist unplugged?

FRIST: You know, we'll see. As you know, I'm a physician. I spent 20 years in medicine. And that is my life. It's healing one on one. And I spent 12 years in the United States Senate, hopefully, being able to participate to a healing process, a better quality of life, of looking at things like immigration and health care and education.

And so I'll make a decision when I leave. I'm pretty comfortable who I am.

I am committed to healing, whether it's doing my best in politics, in policy, or the 20 years I spent in medicine. Then I'll make a decision after we leave.

WALLACE: Senator Frist, we're going to have to leave it there. We want to thank you so much for coming in, especially on this holiday weekend. It looks like you're going to have a busy summer, sir.

FRIST: Yes, indeed. Good to be with you.

WALLACE: Thank you.

FRIST: Thank you.