(Note: On Tuesday, Bloggers talked to Congressman Pence who is seeking to lead the Republican minority.)
Congressman Pence: Good afternoon, thank you for letting me join you this afternoon. I’m delighted to be among friends. Personally, I would begin this moment by professing profound gratitude to all of those in the room whose organization, institutions, and publications have written favorably about our effort from Human Events, I think was the first out of the box, with a strong endorsement from the Family Research Council and others. Frankly, it’s a very humbling thing for me to receive these encouragements that I have received. I am mindful of the proverb that a man is tested by the praise of his peers and so I will thank you and leave with a sense of un-deservedness despite the generous prose. Let me say emphatically, for just a few minutes, why I am not running and why I am running. I am not running because I think any of the current leadership failed to do a workman like job in the 109th Congress. I think Majority Leader John Boehner took on a thankless job in a difficult environment, and I believe that he is to be commended for the job he did. He is an honorable man; he is a conservative. I, like most members of the Republican majority, feel a great sense of gratitude to John Boehner and his family for the sacrifices that they made to stave off what could have been a much larger route on Election Day 2006.
I am running not because I think I am a better man than either John Boehner or Joe Barton; I’m running because I believe that I might just be the best man for the job of Minority Leader. When I look at Election Day 2006, while a difficult war in Iraq was a factor, while a litany of scandals was a factor, I believe that fundamentally the foundation of public confidence of Republican government was eroded by our departures from limited government, fiscal government and reform. I believe that to restore public confidence in our commitment to those Reagan ideas, we would do well to bring new faces and new voices to bear on the challenges we will face in the 110th Congress. I believe the role of the Minority Leader is one that is largely defined by communication. We simply have to have the ability and the credibility to speak to millions of Americans who cherish limited government and traditional moral values and win back their confidence as we go into Election Day 2008. With great respect to the other candidates, I think I may be the best candidate of the three to win back that public confidence.
Let me close with a last provocative thought. I see the role of the Minority Leader in the 100th Congress as being characterized by two specific challenges. Number one, I think the Minority Leader needs to be prepared to lead a team of leaders in the Republican conference, challenge Speaker Pelosi and her big government liberal agenda at every term, and to challenge them on the floor, on the committee and on the early. We simply need to be willing to be that cheerfully, pugilistic loyal opposition that the American people will expect us to be; not engaging in the personal invective that has characterized much of American politics in recent years, but rather vigorously opposing the big government and socially liberal policies that will proceed inevitably out of a Democrat Majority. The second challenge, I believe, of the new Minority Leader, will be a willingness to stand with this President when we believe he right and to oppose this President publicly and boldly when he believe he is pursuing policies that violate our commitment to limited government and fiscal discipline. As many of you know, my career in Congress has been characterized by a willingness to stand with this President, even on difficult issues when I thought he was right. There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the President and me on the war on terror and the war on Iraq. I stood with my colleagues through the difficult issues, like the Terri Schiavo case and stem cell research and stood with the President as he vetoed legislation that would fund the destruction of human embryos for scientific research. But I also believe the role of Minority Leader to be willing to challenge the President of our own party respectfully but forcefully should this administration depart from our commitment to core principles. I must tell you that I was a candidate for Congress in 1990. I was on the ballot in Indiana when the last Bush Administration working on deficit reduction with a Democrat majority in Congress passed what was then the largest tax increase in American history. As Moses said famously, “I’ve been burned by a Bush before.” I will say to you, that if I’m elected Minority Leader, I will stand with this President when he is right, but I will oppose this President when he is wrong. The duty of the Minority Leader will be to represent the views of our conservative conference to the White House, not to represent the views of the White House to our conference. With that, let me say again how greatly I and my family are for the support that’s been expressed all over the internet by the enormously influential voices that are in this room and on this call. We are deeply humbled by it, and I can tell you that win, lose, or draw on Friday, we will owe a debt of gratitude to each of you that we will pay by continued loyalty to the principles that unite us.
Question: I saw on the schedule today that three are three new spending programs to be voted under suspension. I’m getting the very strong sense that the GOP members in the House didn’t get it from last week, the election and what it meant. What’s the outlook right now on your race and is that sentence correct that they don’t get it.
Congressman Pence: I believe that most members of the outgoing Republican majority are working through a process that is probably similar to the seven stages of grief. Some are in denial, some are whatever the next stage is, and the next, and the next. What I will say is, I think it’s a very dynamic environment. I believe that when my Texas colleague Joe Barton entered the race on Friday, that greatly increased the dynamic nature of this contest. I think we are involved as a conference in a very vigorous and very cordial debate over the future of our party, both within the capitol building and beyond. That’s how I would characterize it. You have every version of reaction to a crushing loss is evidence on the floor of the Congress, but there is a lot of time between now and Friday. I believe the members are thinking and talking and considering very deeply the decision that we will make and the message that we will send on Friday.
Question: If you are elected Minority Leader, what do you think the Republican Party’s position and House’s policy on illegal immigration should be?
Congressman Pence: Well, let me tell you what it should not be. It should not be McCain-Kennedy bill that passed the Senate and will inevitably be the bill that comes straight at The House of Representatives. I think one of the reasons why Tom Tancredo and Steve King have both endorsed by candidacy for Minority Leader is because they know my heart. They know I have always supported border security first, supported the [not audible] bill from its inception through its completion, and was pleased to see the border fence legislation become law. They also know in my heart that I categorically oppose any legislation that would allow individuals dispersed back into this country with the violation of our immigration law, to get right with the law without leaving the country. I define that as amnesty; most Americans define that as amnesty, and while I did offer a compromise, a bill this summer with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, to be candid, the debates over compromise are now over. The reality of our time is that the Democrats and the White House have majorities in the House and Senate to move the McCain-Kennedy bill. They have the floor in both chambers to move an amnesty, and what Republicans need to focus on now is using every weapon in our arsenal, in every rhetorical power that we have, to convey to the American people just how harmful it would be if we granted amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants during the 110th Congress. I am dedicated to that; I hope that my willingness to find some compromise will would make me an even more credible voice in opposing amnesty. It seems that one of the ways we’ve been dismissed on the right is with the suggestions that we don’t want to solve the whole problem. At least this summer I’ve earned something of a reputation for wanting to solve the problem in a way that reflected conservative and Republican principles. But amnesty is not the answer. Amnesty is all we will get from the Senate and as Minority Leader I will lead our conference to do everything in our power to expose amnesty legislation, not if, but when it proceeds from the U.S. Senate.
As I told all of my colleagues, I stand by the legislation that Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson and I built, that we put border security first, and then create a guest worker program outside of the United States, only after completed border security measures. And applicants to that guest worker program would have to leave the United States of America to apply. We add into that strong employer enforcement sanctions. I believe then and I believe now that is a solution that could work and could be acceptable to many conservatives, me included. But I want to say again, that ship has sailed. That compromise will not be considered. We are going to get the McCain-Kennedy Bill. Anyone who thinks otherwise needs a math lesson. They have the math; they have control of the floor of the House and Senate now. I was heartened to hear Senator Jon Kyl expressed the willingness in the last twenty-four hours to use a filibuster in the Senate to stop an amnesty bill. I will look forward to being the power of the House minority effort to back that rhetorically and to use every weapon in our arsenal. The American people do not support amnesty and do not want to see Congress pass amnesty legislation. With that being said, I still believe the idea that we floated with a good one, and if we were in a different universe, I would still be advocating for it.
Question: Congressman, have you gotten any sense that your colleagues in the Republican conference feel that overspending played any significant role in our losses? Or did they just kind of feel like it because of the war and other reasons?
Congressman Pence: You know, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the feedback that I’m getting in one-to-one meetings. I come to you from a morning of one-to-one meetings and I have an afternoon full of one-to-one meetings; I’ve been on the phone since last Wednesday. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to the degree to which almost every member I have spoken to has been willing to accept that our departure from fiscal discipline and limited government played an essential role in the erosion of the confidence of our core supporters around the country. Others will argue that there were other factors and I don’t quarrel with that. Iraq was a factor. Scandals were a factor. But there’s that old proverb that says, “If the foundations crumble, how can the righteous stand?” The foundation of the governing majority for the Republican Party in Washington D.C. was Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich’s commitment to a government that lives within its need, a government that is smaller after Republicans are there than it was before they got there, so the notion the government that governs least, governs best. You wrap all of that in a commitment to the traditional moral values that hold our community together and you have the Republican coalition. So I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the degree to which members will attribute some level of importance to the fact that we doubled the national debt under Republican control, and I as I said, we’re engaged in a very good debate and discussion among our colleagues about the degree to which that played a major factor. And let me just say, some of you have written very generous things about me and I’m grateful for that, but I don’t think any member of the 109th Congress on the Republican side of the aisle is blameless in this regard, with the possible exception of Jeff Blunt. Let me talk against interest here; I have requested earmarks since my first day in Congress, always saw it as part of my job. Always willing to stand by every earmark I request, and I am to this day. I voted for the Farm Bill, though I don’t expect to do that again. Some of my competitors in this race have never requested earmarks and have opposed the Farm Bill. The reality here is that we all bare some blame for walking away from a core commitment to fiscal discipline and reform. The reason I think I’m uniquely suited to lead our party back, is because on a couple of key, major signature issues, particularly in my work in leading the Republican Study Committee the last two years, I think I have a unique credibility in my commitment to limited government and fiscal discipline. I think that we will need that credibility to win back the confidence of the voters in the short time span that we have.
Question: What kind of response count have you been getting internally, and is there any time in the course of this week and a half campaign to go to newspaper editorial boards and try to get them to urge their local Congressman to support you, and if so, has that had any impact?
Congressman Pence: Two part question: The first part is we do have an internal count and no I’m not going to tell you what it is. But we’re encouraged and I think this is a very dynamic race. It’s more dynamic with three in it than it was with two. We’re very much in the show. I don’t precede any resentment. Joe Barton and I spoke for twenty minutes very cordially on the floor last night at his request. I have not yet spoken to Leader Boehner, but I think they get the sense and I get the sense that this is about a choice between good alternatives; this isn’t about running against one another. But let me say on the editorial board business, I was delighted when the Monthly Star Press endorsed me this morning, but I’m pretty solid on their Congressman’s vote. I have to tell you that while I believe, and this is meant as no disrespect – particularly to the writers in the room of very prominent national magazines and publications in print and on the internet – but quite candidly, running for a leadership position in Congress is a lot more like running senior class president, which is a race that I won. Running for senior class president is basically ends up to talking to about 200 people. And you’ve got cliques in high school. I had to get the shop guys to like me. I was pretty solid with the chess club and speech team, but the jocks could take me or leave me and I never got anywhere with the cheerleaders. This is very similar to the kind of campaign I’m involved in now. While they take some information from the outside, most of the information they take is from one another. It is a closely held process, and it’s one that I’m not altogether sure shouldn’t be closely held. I think members of Congress are, each of them, leaders – men and women of judgment – who have just proven their political acumen days earlier, and they have every right to apply their political judgment to who will lead our conference in this part of our national government. Our focus is on the members and talking to the members although I’m glad to be here.
Question: In your opening remarks, you mentioned Nancy Pelosi. I was wondering if you had any thoughts of her publicly embrace John Murtha for the Majority Leader?
Congressman Pence: You know, I’m just going to stick to my race. I will not be endorsing in that race. It does suggest that, despite the rather euphoric and understandable victory lap that our Democrat colleagues were taking in the press last week, that things over there will likely be more interesting than they initially appeared. I have to tell you what I think I bring to the table is a certain cheerful pugilism that fully expects a target-rich environment. I think the Democrats of majority will not miss the point in their willingness to advance everything from retreat in Iraq, to tax increase, to onerous regulations, to consideration of articles of impeachment. It is going to be an embarrassment of riches for those of you on this call. My challenge for the Republican conference will be to answer what will be an aggressive, liberal, big government agenda with substantive, thoughtful, main-stream conservative policy alternatives and a smile.
Question: We talk a lot in conservative circles about changing the culture of Congress and the culture of D.C. to get less spending, since government's rigged to just get bigger and bigger. We had a chance to do that and largely missed it, at least these past six years. But we did make a couple small steps-- earmark House rules and small budget reforms come to mind. What, logistically, happens to those small improvements now, and could you speak to how you work on changing culture from a minority position?
Congressman Pence: The House majority adopts the House rules. I was personally grateful to read in USA Today that our incoming speaker is committed to putting names on earmarks. We already did that, and I’m glad they didn’t do it again. There is much more that needs to be done. It is not just a matter of people knowing who has made the spending requests, it is that members should have opportunity at every stage of legislative process to call a vote and challenge specific earmark provision. I am not opposed to members of Congress under Article I of the Constitution, having the ability to vote to spend the people’s money in large ways and small ways. I am not categorically opposed to earmarking. I am categorically opposed to the kind of earmarking that has evolved over the decades, where members of Congress might anonymously slip spending projects involving millions or tens of millions of dollars, late into the night between the sheets, of ominous spending bills without ever any debate and any ever account or consideration. We have to push with greater transparency and greater accountability and a Republican minority will only be able to advocate those kinds of changes. As we talk about ethics reform, and I expect my colleagues on the other side of the aisle will make an effort to move an ethics package, it will be important not only that we change the way lobbyists spend money, but we have to change the way members of Congress spend the people’s money, and it will be imperative that members of Congress around thought leaders around this table and around the country press our new Democrat majority to put our money where their mouth is and to change the fundamental way that we spend the people’s money relative to earmarks. The answer is greater accountability, greater transparency, and greater challengability. If all we do is put names on earmarks which can be added without four in the morning, 2 hours before a 1500-page bill is passed, we have not made progress. Whether we’re calling them on it or working with them to create a truly bipartisan bill that serves the interest of the American people, it will be the role of the minority and the Minority Leader to press the substance of change.