Interview with Sen. Jon Kyl
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) is among the Republicans' most vociferous advocates of fiscal sobriety and a strong national defense. He presumably is not on the list of 2012 contenders, but perhaps he should be on the 2012 ticket, or at the very least in the cabinet of the next Republican president.
For one thing, he doesn't sound like a senator. In a far-ranging interview, he eschewed "Senate-speak" and gave direct, clear answers, never getting lost in the jumble of acronyms. He doesn't mince words, but his criticisms of the president are never personal.
"Most State of the Union speeches are well written and well delivered," he says of last night's effort. But that's not what impresses him. He says bluntly, "Words are fine, but what about the actions?" He went to the heart of the matter, explaining that there is a "dichotomy" between the president's recognition of our fiscal woes and his plans for more spending. "He wants 80 percent of us to be hooked up to high speed rail." And "even if that was a good idea," Kyl wonders how much that is going to cost. He rejects the president's push for everything from "massive projects down to looking at giving federal money to a roofing contractor." The latter, he says, is something "the federal government has no business doing."
Kyl has other ideas for addressing our fiscal worries. He observes, "Every week the House" will send over new program eliminations and spending cuts. Meanwhile, Congress "needs to fund the second half of the year." He thinks Congress will be able to cut back discretionary spending "to 2008 -- at least." Then there is the debt ceiling that affords an opportunity to address our fiscal situation. He says the Senate has to think about more than "spending elimination." He is looking at systematic statutory restraints on spending, citing a plan by Sen. Bob Corker (R- Tenn.) to require sequestration of money authorized in excess of prescribed limits on spending as well as a balanced budget amendment. With the continuing resolution, the debt limit fight and the new budget, "There will be three opportunities," he says, to force fundamental changes in how the federal government spends money.
On entitlements, however, Kyl is pointing to the president to act. "On social security, everyone knows what needs to be done," he says. He wants to shift to a priced-based calculation of benefit increases and "raise, gradually raise, the retirement age." This should be done, he says, without affecting current social security recipients or those on the verge of retirement ("50 to 55 years old"). "If the president would call on Republicans to do that, he would have instant agreement," Kyl says. The implication: The president needs to go first.
He then goes after Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) who is "prepared to vilify Paul Ryan on Medicare." Rather than address the substance of his plans for reworking Medicare, "their answer is to demonize Paul Ryan." On this one, it's not clear to me that Republicans are willing to not only defend Ryan, but to embrace his plan.
Moving to foreign policy, Kyl was "perturbed by the lack of attention" Obama devoted to the subject. He's also dismayed that Obama is "preoccupied by process." Kyl says, "He took pride in the fact we are still talking to North Korea" and that we are sanctioning Iran. "But are there any results from these two [endeavors]?" he asks. He wants Obama to ask "What was the point of the exercise?" when it come to our foreign policy activities.
On Iran, Kyl has praise for outgoing Assistant Treasury Secretary Stuart Levey, but think we need to try something else to halt Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. "One thing that is relatively inexpensive is support for democracy. If we are squeezing the people of Iran, it has to be for a greater cause than" affecting the strategic calculations of their oppressors, he asserts. "If we use Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe, we can show we share their aspirations," he says. That in turn may help them to "put more pressure on their government."
On START, Kyl successfully wrangled two concessions from the Obama administration. But he is wary. "We'll see whether actions follow words," he says. On missile defense, he notes, "There is still a difference of opinion [between the two countries]. The Duma approved the treaty with their caveats. The Russian government says the treaty must be considered in toto with all understandings." Kyl says, "We will ask [the administration] about those understandings since they would not provide the Senate with the negotiating history." On weapons modernization that Obama promised, Kyl is still says the degree of commitment is a "big concern." He says in modern times, "We have the smallest navy, the smallest army and an aging air force." Unless Obama is serious about funding our national defense, he will learn, Kyl says, "We always pay the price when we do not."
And finally on the announced retirement of his friend and colleague Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), he says, "He is the Scoop Jackson of our time. He is an incredible spokesman for peace through strength." He adds, "Joe is one of the most decent people we work with." That's not meant to damn with faint praise, for Kyl is dubious that another Democrat can fill Lieberman's shoes.
Kyl is not flashy and takes no glee, as some of his more aggressive colleagues, in taking pot shots at the GOP leadership or in making inflammatory statements about the president. But he does offer a candid and effective conservative critique of the administration. The Republicans certainly could use more Kyl and less Michele Bachmann, and Paul Ryan could also use a prominent conservative senator like Kyl to champion a grown-up plan to reform our entitlement programs.
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