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Sen. Bill Frist on 'Hannity & Colmes'

This is a partial transcript from "Hannity & Colmes," April 19, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

SEAN HANNITY, CO-HOST: The director of FEMA, Michael Brown, resigned Monday, just three days after he was stripped of his oversight duties in the Gulf Coast region. Brown said he stepped down to avoid further distraction from the relief efforts. The White House announced later today that his replacement would be R. David Paulison, currently FEMA's director of preparedness.

And meanwhile, it was also the first day of the John Roberts confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill. Members of the Judiciary Committee made their opening statements, as did Judge Roberts.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JUDGE JOHN ROBERTS, SUPREME COURT CHIEF JUSTICE NOMINEE: Mr. Chairman, I come before the committee with no agenda. I have no platform. Judges are not politicians, who can promise to do certain things in exchange for votes.

I have no agenda, but I do have a commitment: If I am confirmed, I will confront every case with an open mind. I will fully and fairly analyze the legal arguments that are presented.

I will be open to the considered views of my colleagues on the bench. And I will decide every case based on the record, according to the rule of law, without fear or favor, to the best of my ability.

And I will remember that it's my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HANNITY: And Tuesday is the day when sparks could fly as members of the committee begin questioning Judge John Roberts.

Joining us now from Capitol Hill is Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

Senator, always good to see you. Welcome to the program.

SEN. BILL FRIST, R-TENN., SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: Thank you, Sean. Nice to be with you.

HANNITY: Let's start with the hurricane. Your earlier profession, of course, you were a medical doctor. You were on the ground. You saw the devastation first-hand, and you also said that it was simply unacceptable, the response.

Explain.

FRIST: Sean, I was there Saturday and Sunday. I was at the Cloverleaf. Those images, people will recall, from a week and a half ago. I was also in the airport on Saturday and Sunday. And I was at the convention center on Saturday, as well.

I did go, not as a United States senator, but as a medical volunteer. And I had the opportunity to see hundreds and, indeed, thousands of people come through that airport.

A lot didn't go well. And that's one of the reasons I think we have to investigate it so thoroughly. There was a lack of communications, a lack of command-and-control structure on the ground, all of which are systematic problems that we've got to look at.

On the other hand, I have to say very quickly that it was really gratifying, it was encouraging to see the great outpouring of volunteers come together with the DMAT, or the disaster medical assistance people, with our Guard and, eventually, with our military, coming together to usher through these hundreds and, indeed, thousands of people as they evacuated with the great needs they had.

So a lot of problems, systemic problems. On the other hand, we saw the very best of the American spirit coming together in the volunteers.

HANNITY: When we look at the problems from the beginning, Senator, we'd known for decades the potential if a Category 5 hit New Orleans. They were only prepared for a Category 3. Well, their levees were only prepared for a Category 3.

There was no evacuation. There was in fighting between the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of the state. They didn't evacuate. They didn't use the buses. They didn't help these people out. They didn't let the Red Cross or the Salvation Army that was there ready to give people food and supplies. Where do you put most blame at this point?

And one other question: Was it right that Michael Brown resigned today?

FRIST: Yes, well, let's come back to Michael Brown. But I think you can tie the two together, because it was a really systemic failure. A lot of the blame early on — and we'll hear a lot of the finger-pointing here in Washington goes at the federal government.

And that bothers me. It bothers me, especially having been on the ground, and see people without communication, not doing very well, lack of command-and-control, when it's that local responsibility in all natural disasters, it comes first and foremost.

On the other hand, there's going to be a lot of blame to share at the top, at the federal government, at the state level, at the local government.

Scapegoats, there was a lot of finger-pointing early on. And Michael Brown has done very well in the past with four other disasters, or so I'm told, by people who have worked with him. He did lose the confidence of the American people. And the lack of command-and-control did filter back, with fingers pointed at him.

So I think it is appropriate that he did resign. I don't know much of the details about that.

I do want to assure your viewers that the United States Senate is going to come in and look at everything, minute-by-minute. You mentioned the levees.

Was there appropriate pre-hurricane planning? What was that response in the first few hours at the state and local level? What requests were actually made? I am absolutely committed to get to the bottom of all of this.

And, in part it's to respond, but in part it's because, who knows when that next natural disaster is going to occur?

ALAN COLMES, CO-HOST: Senator Frist, it's Alan Colmes. Thank you for doing our show tonight. We really appreciate it.

FRIST: Thank you, Alan.

COLMES: Let me ask you about the appointment, the person to replace Brown, and if you know anything about him, and if you think that's a good choice in David Paulison.

FRIST: You know, I don't know. I don't know anything about him. And I look forward to learning about him, as we go through the confirmation process. We'll look at that very carefully.

I do think it is very important that we have somebody who is very experienced, somebody with authority, somebody who knows how the system works.

And everybody says, "Well, of course." But I think we need to really put whoever it is under the microscope to make sure they are the very best person in carrying out this job, a job which, as we've seen now, may involve a lot of interaction, a lot more interaction than we've ever expected in the past, within the first — what we call the golden hour in medicine, those first few hours — at the state and local level.

COLMES: I want to ask you about what you experienced, because I understand that you saw a nurse who was stabbed, who needed to get some communication going, to get some security, and a doctor with her couldn't communicate with somebody 40 feet away.

FRIST: Yes, Alan, and it's so important for us to go back and look at these communication problems, because we're facing a natural disaster that was evolving where the hurricane, and then a flood, and then we had acute injury with a chronically ill population coming through.

As we've all seen, the population itself tended to be more frail, more elderly, more socio-economically disadvantaged than what many people thought initially.

The story you mentioned is exactly right. A doctor who was in charge of one of the triage units had a nurse. And the nurse was stabbed. He took her of her, but very quickly ran about 30 yards to tell a security guard.

He said, "Could you call for help?" And the Guard said, "I can't leave my post. It would be too dangerous, because there are not enough security guards here." "And will you call for help?" And he said, "Well, I don't have a radio to be able to call for help."

And that's just one story. There are many, many stories like that, not the stabbing, but the lack of communication.

We've got to be able to communicate if we're going to be given rapid response recovery in that early period, that golden hour period, where we know that both the public safety and individual safety is initially determined.

COLMES: When there is a lack of everybody to communicate, and it's been declared a federal emergency, and the local authorities can't do anything — they're underwater, they can't communicate, they don't have telephone service — is it the responsibility for the federal government to step in and say, "We've got to take control at this point"? And could they have done it sooner?

FRIST: Yes, you know, we'll have to go back and look at it. The initial instinct is absolutely, because, when people are panicked, or there's lack of security, or things aren't going well, you want to go to the federal government, you can say, of course.

As we have seen play out in the news media, and the reporting, and people are increasingly understanding, there is authority that begins at that local level.

I'm not going to make any excuses for the federal government. That's why I really want to focus on that, but the communication was miserable at every level.

HANNITY: Hang on there. We'll ask you about John Roberts when we get — maybe we'll ask you if you're running for president, too, when we get back. We'll continue with Senator Frist in just a minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COLMES: Senator, Howard Dean invoked your name last week in reference to bringing up the issue of the estate tax and dealing with that post- hurricane. I want to show you what he said and get your response to his comments. Here's what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOWARD DEAN, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: The first reaction of the leader of the United States Senate was that this Tuesday, when they came back to work, they were going to vote on whether to extend the abolition of the estate tax.

Now, it seems to me that there's some good news here. The good news is that the president and the people of Congress think there's an extra $750 billion in the budget.

I say it's time for a moral choice: If there is an extra $750 billion in the budget, let's ask the American people. Shall we give that to 3,000 of the wealthiest people in America, or shall we rebuild New Orleans and rebuild Mississippi?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLMES: Is he right that that is a moral choice, how we spend that kind of money, and whether we give that tax cut or whether we really apply it to infrastructure and people who need it in a time of crisis?

FRIST: Yes, Alan, no, I do think it's a false choice. And when it comes down to elimination of a death tax, which is a death tax, which is an unfair tax, I would not equate that with spending of monies. And we're addressing that right now.

At the same time, we are spending a lot of money in response to Katrina, $10 billion in the first round, $51.8 billion in the second round. We know there's going to be another round.

In the back of my mind, I'm thinking, "What kind of tax policy can we use to both involve the private sector but also stimulate growth in our economy?" And that's the challenge that we have as we look forward. At the same time, we're spending a lot of money. Is how we grow the economy in a fair and equitable way?

COLMES: Are you going to move forward on that?

FRIST: Oh, yes. The death tax?

COLMES: Yes.

FRIST: The elimination of the death tax? Absolutely. Dr. Dean was exactly right. The timing was shifted because our focus right now is on helping the victims who have been suffering under this terrible natural disaster.

But sometime in the near future, we'll go back and address it. We'll take it to the floor of the United States Senate. We'll let the will of the American people, through their elective representatives, address it. And I'm confident that we'll eliminate over time this very unfair death tax.

HANNITY: Hey, Senator, Howard Dean's politicizing Katrina, frankly, has been nauseating, as has been other prominent Democrats. I won't ask you about that, because the hearings began today.

We got to hear the first words of John Roberts. Your thoughts, more specifically, about the demand of Democrats on the committee that he answer questions that Ted Kennedy said Thurgood Marshall shouldn't answer, that Ruth Bader Ginsburg didn't have to answer. What should he do?

FRIST: You know, it's fascinating. We'll see it play out.

The Democrats did have a plan, really a three-pronged plan, to discredit Justice Roberts. First — or Judge Roberts — initially, it was to go for a fishing expedition and say, "We needed more papers." It was that there should be more consultation. And the third problem of that plan is to be able to call him extreme.

And we'll see that play out in the questioning today. And I'm sure one of the techniques will be, "You've got to answer all of our questions."

We know the precedent from Ginsburg, which you mentioned, is that not all questions should be answered. You should not be asked — he should not be asked to prejudge the way that he will be determining a case in the future.

This man is a man, which he demonstrated today. He used the words "humility" and "modesty." And that's the way he comes across. A lot of the Democrat senators, after they heard him speak today and all — he didn't have any notes there — they said, "Boy, this guy is really good." And it was reflected in that little four- or five-minute statement today.

HANNITY: I thought it was rather impressive, also. That was my take on it.

But I don't think there's any hope that Chuck Schumer, or Dick Durbin, or Leahy, or Kennedy, are ever going to vote for him, so I think we're going to go through this exercise. Nor is Joe Biden, who's the worst of the bunch.

I want to ask you a last question, Senator, because I think this is important. It is widely assumed in Washington and in the circles of people that know that you are planning to run for president of the United States.

Is there a truth to that? Would you like to announce tonight?

FRIST: You know, it is interesting, that I came to Washington as a citizen legislator, somebody who had 20 years of experience in another field. That happened to be medicine. It happened to be the healing profession.

And I've come here to spend 12 years — just what I told Tennesseans 12 years ago. I'm sticking with what I said. After I finish my two terms in the Senate, I'm going back home to Nashville.

In the next 15 months, I'm going to work this as hard as I possibly can. We've got a job to do, what you're talking about tonight, the nomination...

HANNITY: Is that a yes or no? I can't get the answer out of that.

FRIST: Well, you've got the answer. My focus is on my job.

(LAUGHTER)

I've got a job to do. And we're going to deliver, then go back home. And then I'll be worrying about the future.

COLMES: If you ever want to announce, you're welcome to do it right here, Senator.

HANNITY: Thank you, Senator.

COLMES: You have an open invitation. Thank you very much.

FRIST: You guys are great. Good to be with you.

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