'This Week' Transcript: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

STEPHANOPOULOS: It does seem difficult. I want to turn to another issue. There were reports this week that President Obama may nominate your former colleague, Chuck Hagel, for defense secretary as early as tomorrow. When Senator Hagel left the Senate in 2008, you praised his clear voice and stature on foreign policy and national security. Do you stand by that praise?

MCCONNELL: Well, whoever's nominated for secretary of defense is going to have to have a full understanding of our close relationship with our Israeli allies, the Iranian threat, and the importance of having a robust military. So whoever that is, I think, will be given a thorough vetting. And if Senator Hagel's nominated, he'll be subjected to the same kinds of review of his credentials as anyone else.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Several of your colleagues have come out against his appointment, saying he's not sufficiently supportive of Israel or tough enough on Iran, among other issues. Do you share their concerns?

MCCONNELL: Well, I'm going to take a look at all the things that Chuck has said over the years and review that, and in terms of his qualifications to lead our nation's military.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But do you still believe he has the stature on foreign policy and national security to be secretary of defense?

MCCONNELL: Well, he's certainly been outspoken in foreign policy and defense over the years. The question we will be answering, if he's the nominee, is do his views make sense for that particular job? I think he ought to be given a fair hearing, like any other nominee, and he will be.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you still have an open mind?

MCCONNELL: I'm going to wait and see how the hearings go and see whether Chuck's views square with the job he would be nominated to do.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Finally, on the issue of guns, clear that the president wants to move fast on the issue of gun control coming out of the Sandy Hook shooting. Vice President Biden's task force was likely to make recommendations before the inaugural, and he told Boston's Mayor Tom Menino that they would be passed by the end of January. Is that optimism on his part justified? And are you open to the kind of reforms the president has already talked about, like a limit on high-capacity gun magazines and background checks for buyers at gun shows?

MCCONNELL: Well, first, we need to concentrate on Joe Biden's group, and what are they going to recommend? And after they do that, we'll decide what, if anything, is appropriate to do in this area.

But the biggest problem we have at the moment is spending and debt. That's going to dominate the Congress between now and the end of March. None of these issues, I think, will have the kind of priority that spending and debt are going to have over the next two or three months.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you're not going to address this until after you address these three deadlines that we talked about at the top of the program?

MCCONNELL: Yeah, the single biggest issue confronting the country is spending and debt. That's going to dominate the discussion in Congress for the next three months, at least.

STEPHANOPOULOS: OK. Senator McConnell, thanks very much for your time this morning.

MCCONNELL: Thank you, George.

STEPHANOPOULOS: We'll be back in 60 seconds with the new faces ready to shake up Washington. And our powerhouse roundtable takes on all the week's politics. That is coming right up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BIDEN: Would you take a picture of this quickly?

How old you are?

(UNKNOWN): Fifteen.

BIDEN: Fifteen. Remember, no serious guys until you're 30.

If you need any help on your pecs, let me know. Look at that guy. He's been working out.

Anybody else want to be sworn in as a senator today?

Look, look. That's a Democrat, I know, but it's OK.

Spread your legs, you're going to be frisked.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANOPOULOS: Vice President Biden having some fun there, swearing in the new senators on Capitol Hill, and we are joined now by three rising stars of this new Congress, Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp, who surprised so many in the political world by winning in North Dakota, a state where Mitt Romney beat President Obama by almost 20 points; Republican Congressman Tom Cotton from Arkansas, who volunteered for the 101st Airborne in Iraq and Afghanistan after getting degrees from Harvard and Harvard Law; and Joaquin Castro of Texas, just named president of the House freshmen Democrats. You might remember his twin brother, the major of San Antonio, keynoted this year's Democratic convention.

Welcome to all of you. And, Senator Heitkamp, let me begin with you. You're one of 20 women now in the Senate. We saw all of you talking with Diane Sawyer just the other day, talking about how women are better at working together than men.

And during the campaign, that was actually your biggest criticism of President Obama. I want to show everybody what you said during the campaign. "I think President Obama's failed in the one test America had for him, which was to unite the country. I think he needed to be more hands-on. I don't think he's done enough to think broadly and come up with solutions that would engage both sides in a reasonable dialogue."

So how specifically does he fix that right now? And how can you help him?

HEITKAMP: I think the first thing -- and in the last segment, you saw Leader -- the minority leader talk in ultimatums. We all need to stop talking in ultimatums and say only these -- you know, narrowing the debate, put everything on the table, start working together, that's what you do in America in every small town and every business in America. You don't rule out anything until you've actually had a dialogue.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But the president's got an ultimatum. He says he's not even going to talk about spending cuts over the debt limit.

HEITKAMP: I think -- I think what we need to do is stop talking in ultimatums and start talking about how we resolve the issue, with -- with a sense of urgency. And so that's what the American people sent us here to do, and that's why I think I got elected, because I talked about results. You know, there's people who've run for these jobs who want the job and then there's people who want to do the job. And we just need to get to work.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Congressman Castro, a lot of your Democratic allies think the president hasn't been tough enough.

CASTRO: Well, sure. You know, he has gotten some criticism on the left, but, you know, whenever you come to a compromise with the other party, you're going to get criticism from your own party, too, because it's not a perfect deal.

And the president has worked in earnest with Republicans to try to reduce the debt. He's going to continue to do that. But I agree with the senator, it can't be about ultimatums.

The Republicans -- you know, a lot of what you just heard Senator McConnell say was the same thing that Republicans have been saying for the last few years. It's as if the election never happened and we never learned any lessons from it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: What's your response to that, Congressman Cotton?

COTTON: Well, we have a debt crisis in this country, and it's clearly caused by too much spending and too little growth. And we have an opportunity over the next 60 to 90 days in the new Congress to face the most consequential questions that we will face in the next two years, and that's to get our economy growing by reforming our tax code, cutting spending. The president has said he wants three dollars of spending cuts for every one dollars of tax increases. He just got $600 billion of tax increase, so I hope we see $1.8 trillion at least in spending cuts.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me also ask you about the other big news this morning. It looks like...

CASTRO: And, George...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me go to another issue right now, and we can come back to that in a minute, Congressman Castro.

CASTRO: Sure. Sure.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Because it does appear now that President Obama about to nominate Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense. And you, Congressman Cotton, have actually already come out against the nomination. You wrote in the Wall Street Journal a soldier's-eye view of Chuck Hagel, "His record on Iraq alone should disqualify the former senator from leading U.S. troops in a time of war." So if you were in the Senate, you would vote against him?

COTTON: I would vote against him. I'm disappointed the president's nominated Mr. Hagel, and I've urged the Senate to oppose that nomination. Mr. Hagel came out against the surge the week that I returned from Iraq in 2006, said the war couldn't be won. No one had told us that when we were fighting it in 2006. He delayed emergency funding for the troops in 2007. Even after the surge succeeded in 2008, he still said that it wasn't because of the troops addition.

When you add that to his dangerous views on Iran and Hezbollah and Hamas and terrorism, as well as his strange hostility towards Israel, I think the Senate should oppose Mr. Hagel as secretary of defense. There are many other qualified Democratic defense professionals who the president could nominate.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Heitkamp, this is going to be your first vote for defense secretary. What do you make of that argument? And do you think that Senator Hagel's the right choice?

HEITKAMP: Well, this is -- this is, again, the Washington view of things. Chuck Hagel is a tremendous patriot and statesman, served incredibly in Vietnam, served this country as a United States senator. He hasn't had a chance to speak for himself. And so why all the prejudging? I don't know.

I mean, to me, in America, you give everybody a chance to speak for themselves and then we'll decide. And so it just, again, is this -- this kind of fight is the fight that the people of this country get so frustrated about and with. Let Chuck Hagel get nominated, if he's going to be nominated, and let's hear what the senator has to say.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Congressman Castro, I want to bring up another issue I brought up with Senator McConnell with you. It's pretty clear from talking to Senator McConnell that he doesn't believe that the Senate should take up gun control measures until after these fiscal issues are dealt with the first part of this year. He says three months at least.

CASTRO: Well, you know, there's no question that the debt is an important issue, but immigration reform and gun control are also important issues that the American people, quite frankly, have asked the Congress to deal with. So I am giving him the benefit of the doubt that he's sincere in wanting to deal with the debt first, but I hope that it's not a stalling tactic.

And I wanted to say also, with regard to the situation with the debt ceiling limit, the worst thing that we can do as a nation is create another self-inflicted wound the way we did last time. The best thing that we can do is cooperate, work together in a bipartisan spirit to get this economy back and working. That's one of the ways that we're going to be able to reduce this debt and get things moving again.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Heitkamp, you're a proud NRA member in the state of North Dakota. Are you willing to sign on to some of the reforms that Vice President Biden and President Obama are already talking about?

HEITKAMP: You know, it's unclear. I mean, you read Washington Post stories and you listen to what the administration says, and so I think what we need to do is we need to take a look at what happened at Sandy Hook. When I was attorney general, I was tasked with a national task force on school violence. We made a number of recommendations which, in fact, were adopted at Sandy Hook to help keep schools safer. They weren't adequate.

Let's start addressing the problem. And to me, one of the issues that I think comes -- screams out of this is the issue of mental health and the care for the mentally ill in our country, especially the dangerously mentally ill. And so we need to have a broad discussion before we start talking about gun control.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, the White House is talking about that, but are you willing to talk about gun control, as well?

HEITKAMP: Well, I think you need to put everything on the table, but what I hear from the administration -- and if the Washington Post is to be believed -- that's way -- way in extreme of what I think is necessary or even should be talked about. And it's not going to pass.

CASTRO: Well, but, George...

HEITKAMP: See, that's the other thing.

CASTRO: Can I point out also to the senator -- and I agree. And many folks who have said that mental health and mental illness is an issue, I agree with that. But at the same time, many of those folks -- and not to speak to the senator's position -- but many of those folks have also slashed funding for mental health care for mental illness and they're unwilling to close the gun show loophole, which would allow anyone, whether they're in a gang, whether they're mentally ill, to go in and buy a gun with no background check at all, including the Bushmaster and the AR-15, which we know have caused problems.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So there's going to be some debates among Democrats here, as well. Let me bring in Congressman Cotton for another question now, because I want to put up, as I -- as I bring this to you, Congressman, a new poll, a USA Today-Gallup poll from December, showing the congressional approval rating coming into this year, 18 percent. Now, that's actually higher than it was a few months before. It had actually gotten as low as 9 percent at some point, I believe.

So you're part of this new class, and you've been touted by so many as a possible star of the freshman Republican class. How do you fix that? What do you think is the source of that disapproval? And how do you fix it?

COTTON: George, it reminds me of one of my very first events on the campaign trail. An elderly woman came up to me and said, "You were in the Army, right?" And I said, "Yes, ma'am, I was. I was in Iraq and Afghanistan." And she said, "Now you want to go to Congress, correct?" And I said, "Yes, ma'am, I do." And she said, "Why would you want to leave the country's most respected institution for the country's least respected institution?"

And I think one of the reasons why the Army and the military more broadly is respected is the character they display, and not just the actions they take, the willingness to confront hard problems head on, a sense of purpose and mission and teamwork to deal with ambiguous difficult circumstances and make hard decisions under the highest of stakes. I think if we showed a little bit more of that character in the Congress and in Washington more broadly, then Congress in Washington might be a little bit more respected than they are now.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, I see your colleagues smiling and nodding their heads. I'm afraid that's all we have time for today, but I hope you'll all come back very soon. Congratulations on your election and swearing-in this week.

HEITKAMP: Thank you, George.

CASTRO: Thank you.

COTTON: Thanks.

STEPHANOPOULOS: We'll be right back with our powerhouse roundtable. Who won? Who lost? What's next on the fiscal cliff? Greta Van Susteren weighs in on the questions about Hillary's health, and everyone takes on what could be the president's next big fight. We've heard it over Chuck Hagel. Is the president up for it?

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