With the slim 51-to-49 Democratic majority in the Senate, many major bills are stalled, including most budget legislation. And with public approval ratings of Congress at 20 percent and six Senate Republicans retiring over the next year, Kyl has his work cut out for him. U.S. News congressional correspondent Danielle Knight spoke with the three-term senator about his plans for 2008. Excerpts:
How will you approach your new position?
The job of whip is sometimes misunderstood as twisting arms. More often than not, it involves shaping issues in such a way that people can comfortably come to the position, in this case, that would unify Republicans. That is something that I've been able to do in the past, and I would hope to use my skills in assisting the leader in accomplishing that result. Sometimes you do have to go out and find votes and try to get people to come along. But the real success in the job is when you don't have to do that because you've helped frame the issues and the language in such a way that most Republicans can be unified.
Do you see your whip responsibilities differently, given the public's low approval ratings of Congress and Republicans?
Part of the reason that Congress's ratings are so low is it's been terribly ineffective. To the extent that the ratings of Republicans are low, I think it is a holdover from Republicans' unwillingness to restrain spending when we were in power. The reality now is that we've been, for the better part of a year, trying to restrain the spending and our Democratic colleagues are not really cooperating with us in that regard. I think public opinion will eventually catch up to the reality that Republicans are now, perhaps belatedly, working to restrain spending.
Some of the newer Senate conservatives are hoping that you'll be more aggressive than Minority Leader McConnell in highlighting the differences between Republicans and Democrats.
We only have one leader, and I am not that leader; Sen. Mitch McConnell is. We have to acknowledge that. I hope to help him, and one of the ways I can is to help give voice to the concerns of some of the newer members who do bring a real spirit with them. Some of them came from the House, where you have to be real spirited to be heard. They bring energy. And as long as all of that can be channeled in a very constructive way, it can enhance our effort.
What are some of the top issues you see coming up in 2008?
First will be the continuing saga of the funding of the troops. At best, I suspect we're going to get a temporary reprise with funding that will run out maybe in the spring. That's unclear at this moment. There isn't anything more important than ensuring that the troops in the field have what they need to carry out the mission. Secondly, as you've seen with this rather broken situation today, there was only one appropriation bill sent to the president [by the Senate]; none of them were done on time. And that's going to result in a giant omnibus appropriations bill.... So to try to work with Democrats to get them to do their job a little earlier and get the appropriation process done.... And third, and this is very, very important, constituents are telling us: Slow down the spending and stop any tax increases. We are at a time of economic uncertainty. We don't need tax rates to go up.
Why are so many Republicans leaving Congress?
Each situation is different. I think the superficial, easy way to explain it is it must be som political thing, and that is totally false. Sen. Trent Lott is not leaving because of any situation in Washington. He almost didn't run for re-election because he wanted to do some other things in his life ... Sen. Pete Domenici's health is really not good ... same thing with Sen. John Warner.... Each person has reasons.
After these retirements, the Senate will be a newer and, in some ways, less experienced Senate. Will that change the way you approach your responsibilities as minority whip?
Two things. First of all, new blood is really good for the Senate. It creates a different dynamic, more energy and more of a "can do" attitude. So I welcome that. By the same token, and I don't mean to be partisan, it doesn't appear to me that either of the House or Senate leaders has the ability to bring the session to a close in a responsible way. In the past, more experienced leaders would step in and say: Listen, we have to bring this session to a close, and here's how we do it; it requires some give-and-take on both sides. And you don't see that as much now. So to some extent, if you celebrate the newer members coming in, you also have to encourage those of us with some experience to step up and take the place of the wise old leaders who used to make the institution run right.
What kind of Senate will it be without Senator Lott, who was known for his exceptional deal-making skills, both between the two parties and between different Republican factions?
Every now and then someone retires from the Senate who truly was a giant. Trent Lott was in that category. Yes, he was a consummate deal maker. But he was a lot more than that. He understood the Senate and the House. He knew the people better than anybody else. And so he had the ability, on both sides of the aisle, to sit down and work things out. And that is a skill that is really needed around here, and he was the best at it. I will tell you right upfront that I'm not as good at it as he is. So it will be hard to fill his shoes. I will try to bring my skills to the job and approach some of the things perhaps in a slightly different way, but to try to achieve the same result.
What are these skills that you bring to this position?
First, I hope that all of my colleagues on the ideological spectrum appreciate that I appreciate their positions. I believe very strongly that all Republican points of view deserve to be heard in our conference and recognized. We are not monolithic. And I think they know that, and I think that's one reason they've shown their confidence in me. Secondly, I've been criticized a little bit for being a little too wonkish sometimes, actually reading the bills and that sort of thing. I hope that I can turn that into a positive and help colleagues understand the circumstances and issues that we face in ways that will help them come to the conclusion that would be most supportive of the Republican point of view. In other words, having knowledge about the issues and being able to talk about them with colleagues, I think, is an important skill. And I will try to employ that to the best of my ability.
By Danielle Knight