U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, spoke with The Daily editorial board Wednesday on topics ranging from the “fiscal cliff” to President Barack Obama’s cabinet nominations to the debt ceiling. Here are excerpts of the conversation, edited for clarity and length.
Q: Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Huntsville) recently said, without naming you, that one explanation for Senate approval of the “fiscal cliff” deal was that many senators are elderly and the vote took place at 1:30 a.m. Does he by chance have it wrong?
A: Yeah, he’s got that wrong. But it was 1 o’clock in the morning. It would have been easy to vote “no” because you don’t have to explain. People seem to interpret it one way. I felt we got out of that about as good as we could. The president campaigned on raising taxes on upper income people. A law had to be passed to keep the taxes from going up on everybody. The president could have vetoed it, and his members of the Senate were not going to vote for anything he didn’t support. (Senate Minority Leader Mitch) McConnell and the vice president reached an agreement that protected 99 percent of the people from a tax increase and made it permanent. It also fixed the death tax and the alternative minimum tax. I thought it was the right thing to do.
One of the frustrations was there were no spending cuts. That’s a legitimate concern. That collapsed. The president was demanding things that were not acceptable. He wanted more taxes than he originally wanted, to increase spending. All that was dealt with in the cliff vote was the tax question. ... The continuing (budget) resolution expires in March. That and the debt ceiling provide the opportunity and duty for Congress to insist that the government rein in its spending. It’s going to be a tough spring.
Q: What is your position on the debt ceiling?
A: The president dug his heels in on the debt ceiling. That’s very irresponsible. Historically there have been many opportunities when we hit the debt ceiling to negotiate long-term spending reductions. That’s got to be done. We don’t have the money, and we can’t keep spending at this level.
I expect to see some spending reductions on the debt ceiling. The obvious problem is the House has said they’re not going to raise the debt ceiling until they get some sort of spending reduction. Some say the debt ceiling is not the best place to confront the (spending) issue, that you should do it on the continuing resolution which comes up in March. But I don’t think we should pass up the debt ceiling. I think the president should understand he’s burned through $2.1 trillion in about 16 months. This has got to end.
Q: What Obama says he wants is stimulus spending now, until the economy recovers, combined with long-term cuts.
A: That’s incorrect. President Obama does not want to cut anything. He wants to spend more. ... He is a big-government liberal. He’s a man of the left. He believes in bigger and bigger government. He wants more taxes and he wants history to record that he permanently altered the American heritage of limited government.
The Democrats make this argument, that we don’t want to cut now because it will hurt the economy; we’ll cut in the future. But when you talk to them about the big future drains on the Treasury — the entitlement programs — they attack anybody that proposes a plan.
Q: What’s you position on Jack Lew, Obama’s nominee as secretary of Treasury?
A: He should not be secretary of Treasury. In 2011, after the big victory for Republicans, Lew comes into these meetings and he’s always the hostile guy. He’s just doing what the president wants, really, which is nothing. Where I really disagreed with him, what I felt so strongly about, is that after producing a budget that had no entitlement reform, no reduction in debt, increased taxes and increased spending and no deficit reduction, (Lew) goes to the American people and says this budget he wrote as (Office of Management and Budget) director will have us live within our means. He said we’ll just spend the money we have and it will put us in a position to pay down the debt. I called it at the time: the greatest financial misrepresentation in history. His own numbers that he submitted with his budget was a deficit of $600 billion, going up in the out years. It added $13 trillion to the debt of the United States. And he said it was going to have us live within our means and spend only the money we have? It was unbelievable. That was political. They produced a budget that did not reduce spending. They said, “Well, we’ll be criticized if we do that, so we’ll just say it does (reduce spending).” This is a post-modern world. People — particularly this administration — think they can say most anything and nobody will hold them to account. I’m going to hold them to account. He may get confirmed, but I thought that was wrong.
Q: Would you filibuster Lew?
A: We’ll see what happens. Very frequently these nominees require 60 votes to be confirmed. He shouldn’t be confirmed in my opinion.
Q: You’ve got that control. Will you filibuster and require 60 votes?
A: We’ll see what happens. It’s time for the American people to know what (the administration is) doing. It’s not right. It can only be explained by the fact that he’s a man on the left.
Q: What’s your view on (former Republican Sen.) Chuck Hagel, Obama’s nominee for secretary of Defense?
A: I don’t know what to do about that. I’ve known Chuck. We came to the Senate together. He’s really been troublingly at odds with the great American, bipartisan foreign policy that existed through the Cold War and past the Cold War, that it seems President Obama is drifting away from. Which is fundamentally that the United States does provide leadership, does provide confidence to the free world and trade. They don’t want to do that. They lead from behind.
I’m ranking Republican on the Strategic Subcommittee of Armed Services, and Chuck’s been part of a commission that’s advocating zero nuclear weapons, which I think is so unrealistic as to be dangerous. They want to dramatically bring down our number of nuclear weapons. Bringing down our nuclear weapons, they say, is a way to set an example. All Iran and North Korea and other countries are going to see is, “Wow. The West is decadent. They don’t have the will to defend themselves. In a few years, we can have as many nuclear weapons as they do.” They’re not going to stop having nuclear weapons because we don’t have nuclear weapons. Russia’s not giving up nuclear weapons.
We act like the only person in the world to deal with is Russia. What about China? What about other nations in the world that are capable of creating nuclear weapons? And what about Japan and South Korea? If they don’t have confidence in the U.S. nuclear umbrella, will they want to have nuclear weapons? If Iran has nuclear weapons, won’t Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt want nuclear weapons? This is a very dangerous time in history. I think this is a mistake. I’m going to be particularly studying (Hagel’s) positions and statements on nuclear weapons, which at this point seem to be dangerous.
Q: He’s been more pragmatic, less deferential, when it comes to Israel. Is that a problem for you?
A: I think his position on Israel should be examined carefully. There are people that feel Israel is a sore spot, that if it went away we’d get along with the Muslim world — this sort of unrealistic thinking. I hope Chuck doesn’t have this view. I doubt that he does. The message he’s sending is a dangerous message. It suggests the United States is less than committed to Israel, which can embolden the people who want to wipe it off the map.
Q: Could you support Hagel?
A: He’ll come before my committee. I’m prepared to let him have an opportunity to speak. I am concerned, particularly on the nuclear question.
Q: So you haven’t made up your mind on Hagel?
A: I think that’s fair to say. I know him and I’ve served with him. We disagreed on a number of things. I didn’t realize how much Chuck’s defense and military policies have changed since what I think they were when he came to the Senate. He’s also been open to cuts in defense spending. I want to know what he means. We’ve already reduced defense spending $500 billion. The sequester would take away another $500 billion. I want to know where Chuck is on this. I don’t think we should take another $500 billion. I know we shouldn’t take more big cuts right now in defense, because it’s so disruptive. You have to immediately lay off people, you cancel contracts, pay penalties for canceling contracts, you stop procuring systems that you built your whole plan around. We have to be careful about that. I want to know where he is on that, what he means by (saying) they need more cuts.
Q: House Speaker Boehner bypassed the Hastert Rule for the second time Tuesday on the Sandy recovery bill. Do you find yourself sympathetic with Boehner in his efforts to control his caucus? (Under the nonbinding Hastert Rule, the speaker only brings up for vote matters that a majority of his caucus supports.)
A: He’s got to be careful that he doesn’t lose his conference. He should listen to them. There is a sense if you’re Speaker, you need to serve the people who elected you as Speaker. You should seek more than half their votes on major positions. If you’re not consistently obtaining that kind of support, people question your ability to unite your caucus. But in our system, it’s not a hard and fast rule. I don’t think there was a bunch of complaints on the fiscal cliff vote. (The vote passed the House despite opposition from a majority of Republicans.)
The challenge for Republicans is the House and Senate leadership have got to start talking to the American people, and not just what goes on inside the chamber.
Q: Are there any changes you could support on gun control?
A: We’ll look at it. When I was a United States Attorney, I had a gun program. We worked with local law enforcement and we had more prosecutions — for an assistant U.S. Attorney — for gun violations, than anybody in the country. Under this administration, gun prosecutions are down compared to the Bush years.
Q: So you favor Obama’s proposed executive orders on increasing prosecutions?
A: If they focus on people likely to shoot somebody, yes. Criminals and thugs and the mentally ill and that sort of thing. What they want to focus on is restricting the ability of law-abiding citizens to get guns, and I’m not for that.
Q: Could you support restrictions on the size of the magazines?
A: I’ll have to see what they say about that. That’s obviously more political and psychological than it is substantive, in terms of impacting crime. Is it going to impact crime if the clip has nine instead of 16 rounds in it? Not much, I don’t think. The numbers don’t show the assault weapons ban had much impact.
Q: Do you support a ban on semi-automatic weapons?
A: I definitely would oppose a ban on semi-automatic weapons. The old Colt revolver is a semi-automatic weapon. If you start banning semi-automatic weapons, you’ve really banned the essence of gun ownership today. Normal people are coming up to me expressing concerns about banning guns. They don’t like it. “Don’t let them take our guns,” that’s what they say. And they mean it.
Contact Eric Fleischauer at 256-340-2435 or at email@example.com.
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