This Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell joined Dana Bash in an exclusive interview to discuss the GOP’s letter to Iran, the partisan divide over the current human trafficking bill, and Loretta Lynch’s pending confirmation as the next U.S. Attorney General.
Text highlights, video, and a transcript of the discussion are below
MANDATORY CREDIT: CNN’s “State of the Union”
McConnell on Loretta Lynch: “We are not going to be able to finish the trafficking bill until this gets resolved. And this will have an impact on the timing of considering the new attorney general. Now, I had hoped to turn to her next week, but, if we can't finish the trafficking bill, she will be put off again. They need to come to grips with this. I offered them a simple up-or-down vote if they wanted to take out language that they all voted - that they all voted for three months ago.”
McConnell on human trafficking bill: “The Democrats are acting the same way in the minority they did in the majority. They don't seem to like to vote. Here are the facts. This is - was a noncontroversial bill. It came out of the Judiciary Committee unanimously. The language that they now profess to find offensive was in there from the beginning. They all voted for the very same language in a bill in December. This is boilerplate language that's been in the law for almost 40 years that they all voted for three months ago in another bill.”
McConnell on GOP letter to Iran: “Well, Dana, first, let me just say, I think this is a good case of selective outrage. I remember reading about Senator Robert Byrd when he was the majority leader flying to Moscow during the negotiations over the SALT II treaty explaining to the Russians the Senate's role in treaty ratification. And John Kerry, when he was a senator, flew to Managua and met with a communist dictator there, Daniel Ortega, and accused the Reagan administration of engaging in terrorism. So, look, members of Congress expressing themselves about important matters, not only at home, but around the world, is not unprecedented. So, the main point here I think everybody needs to understand is the president is about to make what we believe will be a very bad deal. He clearly doesn't want Congress involved it at all. And we're worried about it. We don't think he ought to make a bad deal with one of the worst regimes in the world.”
Full transcript of the interview is available after the jump
THIS IS A RUSH FDCH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BASH: Joining me now for an exclusive interview is the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.
Thank you very much for coming in.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: Glad to be with you.
BASH: Let's just talk first about the timing of this.
There's a lot of discussion about the fact that this was done in a rushed way, signed quickly, before senators wanted to get out of town for the snowstorm.
When did Senator Cotton come to you with this letter? Explain the process.
MCCONNELL: Well, Dana, first, let me just say, I think this is a good case of selective outrage.
I remember reading about Senator Robert Byrd when he was the majority leader flying to Moscow during the negotiations over the SALT II treaty explaining to the Russians the Senate's role in treaty ratification. And John Kerry, when he was a senator, flew to Managua and met with a communist dictator there, Daniel Ortega, and accused the Reagan administration of engaging in terrorism.
So, look, members of Congress expressing themselves about important matters, not only at home, but around the world, is not unprecedented.
So, the main point here I think everybody needs to understand is the president is about to make what we believe will be a very bad deal. He clearly doesn't want Congress involved it at all. And we're worried about it. We don't think he ought to make a bad deal with one of the worst regimes in the world.
BASH: Can you tell me, though, having said all that, the process, because...
MCCONNELL: Well, sure.
I signed the letter. I don't think it was a mistake. It's no more unusual than Robert Byrd going to Moscow or John Kerry going to Managua.
BASH: Did you go - did you go over it? Did you look at it, suggest...
MCCONNELL: Yes, I read it. I read it.
BASH: Make suggestions?
MCCONNELL: I thought it was entirely appropriate to explain that the process is going to include Congress at some point.
MCCONNELL: Now, the president would like to keep us out of it. We know that. But we're going to be involved in it. If the deal is made, we will bring up the Corker-Menendez proposal, which would require the deal to come to Congress. A number of Democrats have indicated that they think that's a good idea. If a deal is not made, then I think the Kirk-Menendez proposal ratcheting up sanctions on the Iranians would be an appropriate next step.
BASH: Let me just read part of the letter, so our viewers have a sense of what we're talking about.
It said: "It has come to our attention, while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government, that you might not fully understand our constitutional system. We will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear weapons programs that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei."
So, the criticism that we're hearing is, it comes across as patronizing and even juvenile. And there's some questioning whether it was appropriate for a young senator to take the lead on this, somebody who has only a couple months' experience in the Senate.
MCCONNELL: Look, all of this is a distraction away from the point here.
The president has said, we're going to either reach a deal or not reach a deal with one of the worst regimes in the world by March the 24th that will probably allow them to keep their nuclear infrastructure in place. This is a big, important issue, not to be sort of trivialized by the discussion that goes on back and forth by members of Congress about this hugely important issue.
BASH: But isn't this a distraction of your making, that this is - that this whole conversation is about what was appropriate and not because this is a letter that you all wrote that has raised those questions?
MCCONNELL: Well, the administration would like to have a distraction.
But the point is the substance of the matter. Are they or are they not about to make a very bad deal that will allow the Iranians, one of the worst regimes in the world, to continue to have their nuclear infrastructure, the same country that is fomenting problems in Syria, in Lebanon, in Gaza, in Yemen?
That's the point, the substance of the matter. This is a very, very important issue.
BASH: And many Republicans agree with you, and Democrats agree with you as well.
I just want to put up another quote, explaining the backlash that is also coming from people in your party. A speechwriter for George W. Bush, Michael Gerson, wrote this. "This was a foreign policy maneuver in the middle of a high-stakes negotiation with all the gravity and deliberation of a blog posting. In timing, tone and substance, it raises question about the Republican majority's capacity to govern."
He's questioning your capacity to govern, a fellow Republican.
MCCONNELL: I think what we need to talk about here is the substance of the issue.
Apparently, the administration is on the cusp of entering into a very bad deal with one of the worst regimes in the world that would allow them to continue to have their nuclear infrastructure. We're alarmed about it. A number of Democrats are alarmed about it. We will be acting. We will either be voting on a bill that would require the deal to come to Congress. The president says he would veto that.
Or, if there is no deal, we will be voting on a bill that says the sanctions need to be ratcheted up. You know, a number of the supporters of the president have said that the choice here is between this deal and war. That's not the choice. The choice is between this deal and tougher sanctions.
Let's focus on what's about to be done here. That's what's important to the American people.
BASH: I know you want to focus on the substance. And I actually have a couple of questions about what you're talking about in a second.
But, before that, I do want to get at this, because this is a very real explosion, basically, in the feeling that this was just over the line. And it's not just coming from Democrats. It's not just partisan.
And some of your most vulnerable senators are really getting hit back home. For example, Mark Kirk, who's up for reelection next year, in his conservative hometown paper, "The P.J. Star": "Republicans have made that better deal impossible. Kirk has not been among the crazies in Congress, particularly on foreign policy matters, but he joined them here."
Kelly Ayotte, also up for reelection, in her hometown paper: "Among the signers is New Hampshire's own Kelly Ayotte, who, despite emphatic and persuasive criticism of the letter, has yet to explain her reasoning of endorsing such a dopey idea."
Just pure politics. I know you get pure politics. Are you worried that this is - that this is going to be hurtful to the people who help make up your majority, who make you majority leader?
What I'm worried about is the administration entering into a very bad deal with one of the worst regimes in the world. Members are very concerned about it on both sides of the aisle. And the Senate will be heard from. This won't be the last time there are senators speaking out on this issue. They will be heard from again.
BASH: And on your point about the fact that this is a bipartisan process, it absolutely is.
There are Democrats and Republicans who want Congress to weigh in with the legislation you were talking about. But I have heard from Democrats that, by sending this letter, you have made it a partisan process, and it's harder to get Democrats on board, and maybe even there was a possibility of getting a veto-proof margin. Harder to get the Democrats on board because you have politicized the process.
MCCONNELL: I can't believe a Democrat concerned about Iran getting a nuclear weapon would use some excuse like this as a reason not to support legislation that they think on the merits makes good sense.
There are at least 10 Democrats who have said they felt like it was important for the Congress to be able to approve this agreement. Why would they use some dispute like this, some controversy like this, which I think is a bit of a manufactured controversy, frankly, to get in the way of their judgment about whether or not Iran should be allowed to get nuclear weapons? I don't think, in the end, they are going to do that.
BASH: OK. Let's move on to human trafficking.
It's a bill that has - talk about bipartisan support - broad bipartisan support to stop human trafficking.
BASH: It stalled in the Senate this past week. Democrats say that they are holding it up now because they discovered what they call an anti-abortion provision in there. And they are demanding that you take it out.
Just sort of big picture, this is the kind of thing that you said you wanted to stop. It was sort of the gridlock of the old Senate happening again.
MCCONNELL: Yes. I'm glad you brought this up.
The Democrats are acting the same way in the minority they did in the majority. They don't seem to like to vote. Here are the facts. This is - was a noncontroversial bill. It came out of the Judiciary Committee unanimously. The language that they now profess to find offensive was in there from the beginning.
They all voted for the very same language in a bill in December. This is boilerplate language that's been in the law for almost 40 years that they all voted for three months ago in another bill. We are not going to be able to finish the trafficking bill until this gets resolved.
And this will have an impact on the timing of considering the new attorney general. Now, I had hoped to turn to her next week, but, if we can't finish the trafficking bill, she will be put off again. They need to come to grips with this. I offered them a simple up-or-down vote if they wanted to take out language that they all voted - that they all voted for three months ago.
BASH: They can't win that. They can't win that up-or-down vote.
MCCONNELL: I know, but they're - you know, sometimes, the majority makes a difference.
They all voted for the very same language three months ago, Dana, the very same language, three months ago.
BASH: You have - you have a very good point, that Democrats admit they didn't do something really basic, which is read the bill and understand what's in it.
BASH: But now that they have and we are where we are, why not just take it out and continue this bipartisan process?
MCCONNELL: Because a majority of the Senate does not want to take the language out.
And all of the Democrats voted for the very same language three months ago. Now, if they want to have time to turn to the attorney general next week, we need to finish up this human trafficking bill. It's extremely important to the country.
BASH: So, it sounds like you are threatening to hold up Loretta Lynch, who has been in limbo for months and months...
MCCONNELL: It's not a threat. We need to finish this human trafficking bill that came out of the Judiciary Committee unanimously. That's the next item.
MCCONNELL: It's on - it's on the Senate floor right now.
MCCONNELL: We need to finish that, so we have time to turn to the attorney general, because, the next week, we will be doing the budget, and two weeks - and the next two weeks after that, Congress is not in session.
BASH: So, unless Democrats give in, Loretta Lynch's nomination will not be on the Senate floor next week?
MCCONNELL: We have to finish the human trafficking bill. The Loretta Lynch nomination comes next. And as soon as we finish the human trafficking bill, we will turn to the attorney general.
BASH: Let's ask - I want to ask you about the attorney general, because she initially really had bipartisan praise, support. And as the weeks and weeks and weeks have gone on since she's not gotten a vote - I believe maybe it was the longest in history for her post - she has lost support from many Republicans, who say they don't like the idea that she agrees with the president's immigration plan.
But what else would they expect? The president of course will nominate somebody who agrees with his plan. I mean, that's his prerogative.
MCCONNELL: Well, the nomination hasn't taken that long if you consider when it was actually taken up, which was this year.
The Democrat majority back in December had a chance to work on the nomination earlier, decided to delay it until this year. The nomination is scheduled to be considered as soon as we finish the human trafficking bill. I think the attorney general nominee is suffering from the president's actions. There's no question about it.
The actions he took unilaterally on immigration after the election enraged a number of members. Lots of members have voted - have talked to the nominee. She had bipartisan support in committee. We will take her up just as soon as we get through with this important human trafficking bill.
BASH: Will you vote for her?
MCCONNELL: I haven't made a decision yet.
BASH: What's holding you back? Is it that issue?
MCCONNELL: Well, I'm bringing her up. So, I'm not denying the administration an opportunity to have the nominee...
BASH: No, I mean you personally.
MCCONNELL: I'm going to announce what I'm going to do at a later time.
But the first thing we need to do is finish this important human trafficking bill. And then we can turn to the nomination of the attorney general.
BASH: Just a couple of quick 2016 questions.
You have said that you support your fellow Kentucky senator, Rand Paul, for his probable presidential bid. And you're obviously in touch with the many, many, many members of your caucus who are running for president, but what about people outside?
I was up with Jeb Bush in New Hampshire a couple of days ago. Have you been in touch with him?
MCCONNELL: I have talked to most all of the nominees at one point or another. They're obviously interested in what we're doing and have opinions about what we're doing here in Congress.
And I try to keep an open line of communication with all of them. And, of course, three of them are in the Senate.
MCCONNELL: So, it's pretty easy to talk to them.
BASH: Do they call for advice or for questions about...
MCCONNELL: Oh, we talk about the business of the Congress and the Senate.
BASH: One thing that struck me is the way Jeb Bush - I was, again, with him on the campaign trail - every chance he got, he would speak to a voter. If they spoke Spanish, he would speak fluently to them in Spanish.
And I was just reminded of the lessons that Republicans thought that they had to take after 2012. Mitt Romney only got 27 percent of the Hispanic vote.
How important, as a leading Republican, do you think it is for the next Republican presidential nominee to be able to connect with Hispanic voters?
MCCONNELL: I think it is very important. And a lot of our nominees can. We have two likely candidates for president who are fluent in Spanish. We have others who have been reaching out to groups that we haven't done very well in recent days with.
And some of our candidates did a lot better with Hispanic voters in 2014 than our nominee for president did in 2012. I think it is important. It's a growing, important part of our country. And we haven't done as well as we should have.
BASH: Thank you very much. Appreciate you coming in, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
MCCONNELL: Thank you.
BASH: Thank you so much.