Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader, has become the most powerful Republican in government. And even though Democrats now hold sway in Washington, his backing is crucial to President-elect Barack Obama's plans for an economic stimulus package.
McConnell told Renee Montagne that it's clear something must be done to stabilize the economy.
"But I think we're all sobered by the deficit figures that have come out," he said, referring to recent Congressional Budget Office estimates that the federal budget deficit will swell to $1.2 trillion this year.
In regard to the stimulus package, McConnell said, "I think that Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi had it right when she said last year it ought to be timely, targeted and temporary."
Caution On An Expensive Plan
The senator said the goal is to make sure that any economic solution does not include "long-term spending that makes our fiscal situation even more dire than it already is. It's pretty dire now."
Asked what types of long-term spending would send up a red flag among fiscal conservatives, McConnell said that problems could surface if Democrats were tempted to use the legislation to make permanent changes to the federal system.
"If any of these long-term systemic changes cost more money," he said, "then you're only exacerbating the pre-existing problem."
Instead, McConnell said, Congress should focus on a plan that helps everyday Americans. "The new president may well agree with us on this," he noted, "that putting more money in the pockets of taxpayers is likely to be stimulative."
The economic recovery package may cost as much as $1 trillion. To reduce the debt it would bring, McConnell said the government should consider offering financial help to states in the form of loans, instead of grants.
That approach could have an added benefit: "I think they'd be more careful in how they spent it."
There are also some states that don't require any aid, McConnell said. "Why should we give money to a state that doesn't need it, and doesn't want it?"
Potential For Widespread Support
Asked when Congress might approve a financial package, McConnell cited early February as a possibility. But he noted that the plan has not yet been produced in full detail.
McConnell said a legislative package costing nearly $1 trillion must also incorporate input from both taxpayers and the Republican minority.
"And it's not just a matter of pride to us," he said. "Senate Republicans represent half the population."
Obama has proposed a $300 billion tax cut — an element that may help win Republican support. "Depending upon how this tax component is crafted," McConnell said, "it could well have broad Republican appeal and make it much more likely that the measure passes with broad bipartisan support, which is what the new president would like and what we would like."
McConnell also said that he didn't think filibusters would play a role in the evolution of a stimulus deal.
"I don't think this measure's going to have any problem getting over 60 votes," he said.
As for any legislative measures that could help reduce the nation's deficit — and possibly address problems with Medicare and Social Security — McConnell doesn't expect any action in the near future.
"I expect the current economic crisis will actually slow down our willingness and ability to tackle those issues. But they're there," he said.
McConnell has endorsed the idea of holding a special election in Illinois for Obama's vacant Senate seat. Roland Burris, the man chosen to fill it by embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich, was turned away when he tried to claim the seat on the opening day of the 111th Congress.
Republicans would prefer "a fresh start that allows the people of Illinois to choose their senator," McConnell said, adding, "But, candidly, if Mr. Burris presents the correct paperwork, he's going to be a senator."
Regarding another aspect of government — the president-elect's choices for Senate-confirmed administration posts — McConnell said he doesn't foresee many problems, with one possible exception: Eric Holder as attorney general.
He said Holder faces "serious questions to respond to with regard to his role in the Marc Rich pardon at the end of the Clinton administration, and some other matters."
"Beyond that, I don't anticipate trouble for the new president's nominees," McConnell said. "I think most of them are people we're familiar with, and have outstanding records."