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18 Days: U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill)

posted on October 17, 2008

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Yepsen: The 110th United States Congress remains in its pre-election recess, but that doesn’t mean work isn’t continuing in the nation’s capitol. We get an update from the Assistant Majority Leader in the U.S. Senate, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, on this edition of Iowa Press.

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On statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, October 17th edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen: Eighteen days remain until history is made in the November 4 general election, and the campaigning continues. The U.S. Congress, while not officially in session, finds congressional leaders continuing to work on post-election measures for the outgoing 110th Congress, paving the way for the 111th in mid-January. Well, our guest this week on Iowa Press is one of those high-profile congressional leaders. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois is Assistant Majority Leader and serves as the Senate Majority Whip. Senator Durbin, now in his second six-year-term, is the number two ranking democrat in the U.S. Senate. Senator Durbin, welcome back to Iowa and to Iowa Press.

Durbin: Thanks, David.

Yepsen: Good to have you with us.

Durbin: Thank you.

Yepsen: Also with us at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, News Director with Radio Iowa and Mike Glover, Senior Political and Legislative Reporter with the Associated Press.

Glover: Senator, let’s start out fairly close to home. Most people are projecting heading in this election that democrats are going to pick up seats in the House and the Senate. I presume you agree with that assessment. The larger question is can you get to 60 to have a filibuster-proof Senate?

Durbin: Well, as the whip, I have to count votes. We have 51 so we have a bare majority, 51-49. But in the Senate it takes 60 votes to do anything important, as you know, so we need a net gain of 9. Our incumbents, democrats, all seem to be in good shape as of today, and I hope that remains. And we can see at least in five specific races where we will pick up a congressional seat – pardon me, a Senate seat now held by a republican. So that takes us to 56. And then we have another five or six seats in play, so it’s possible. It’s a long shot but it’s possible.

Glover: And where will you do the pick-ups?

Durbin: Well, the pick-ups that we feel best about at the moment are Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado, New Hampshire and Alaska. But we’re in play and in fact ahead in Minnesota, in North Carolina, and in Oregon, and we also have some other options that might come through.

Glover: And what’s driving these elections? Why is the democratic wave this time – is it the economy? Is it an unpopular war? What’s driving it?

Durbin: All of the above. I think it’s the appetite for change and maybe some of these folks have come to the conclusion that, you know, they’re dissatisfaction with congress in general reflects the fact that we have a stalemate in the Senate. We’ve had 94 filibusters this year initiated by the republicans – I should say that the last two years. The record before was 57. So they’ve broken all records for filibusters to stop action by the Senate when taking up House measures. And I think it’s that sense of frustration and the feeling we ought to at least let one team take the field and see if they can make a difference.

Henderson: Since the other United States Senator from Illinois is your party’s nominee for president, Illinois issues have come to fore in the national debate about the presidential contest. First of all, a projector in Chicago for three million dollars, was that a good project for him to express an ear mark and ask that that be funded?

Durbin: You think of your high school projector, don’t you, and that little carousel that they pop in the top, and you think how in the world could that cost $3 million? This is at the Adler Planetarium. It is a projector that was put in there decades ago, made in Germany, which is now obsolete and cannot be fixed and replaced. They’ve patched it up over the years, and they now have to replace this projector which literally projects, over the ceiling, the heavens so those who are in the planetarium can appreciate it. It is not your average high school projector. I signed on the letter too. The investment that we put in that – and we put them in selectively – was one that we thought was worthwhile, that had a valid public purpose, fully disclosed from start to finish. I think it’s a good investment, as far as I’m concerned, for the thousands, if not tens of thousands, who come to that planetarium.

Henderson: And Americans have become more familiar with a gentleman who lives in Chicago named Bill Ayers. First of all, have you ever had a fundraiser in Bill Ayers’ living room?

Durbin: I’m not sure I’ve ever met him. I won’t say I haven’t, because I’ve met a lot of people in Illinois, but I know it wasn’t in his living room.

Henderson: The McCain campaign and Mr. McCain himself refers to him as a domestic terrorist, and Sarah Palin has accused Barack Obama of palling around with terrorists. What is the Obama campaign response to that, and do you think that’s a valid charge?

Durbin: I think that Barack Obama has made it clear how he feels, and I share his feelings, that what Mr. Ayers did back in the day when he was involved in this activity was indefensible and despicable, no defenses made. Of course, that all occurred when Barack Obama was eight years old. That man now has been at least rehabilitated in the eyes of the University of Chicago – the University of Illinois at Chicago where he teaches, and he continues to be involved in a lot of education reform projects funded by foundations headed up by people like Walter Annenberg, a person who has a long history of being a friend of President Reagan, being Ambassador of the Court of Saint James, and Barack worked with him on a board. To make this part of the campaign is to ignore the obvious, and I think the American people and Iowans get it. It should be about the economy, not about what some man did when Barack Obama was eight years old.

Glover: Let’s take a step back and look at this race, if we could. If you look at the national polls, it’s showing Obama not just with a lead but with a lead that’s starting to grow. The same thing if you look at some of the battleground states like Pennsylvania. You see Obama developing a lead and a lead that’s growing. Is this thing over?

Durbin: No, I wouldn’t say that. I had a conversation last night with David Axelrod. This is the most nerve racking part of the campaign. There’s no great event left except November 4 and that’s the greatest event. We have a lot of activity underway in Iowa with early voting and organizational work and get out the vote, but there’s no big campaign event like a debate or a convention or the selection of a running mate. It’s not over at all and we are telling everything this is when we have to get really serious. It’s a kitchen sink part of the campaign. Those who are behind are going to throw the kitchen sink at their opponent, and we’ve got to be prepared for whatever comes at us.

Glover: And where’s the battleground if John McCain catches up? Where can he catch up?

Durbin: Well, I’m not going to try to draw up his battle plans, but I will tell you the first thing he has to do is win all the states that George Bush won, and he’s got a problem because in at least seven of those states, we’re giving him quite a battle.

Glover: And those would be?

Durbin: Well, I don’t know if you can list them all as I sit here, but I look at Florida and Ohio as an example, Missouri, Iowa, states that, you know, frankly, have been traditionally carried by republicans or have been close states in the past.

Yepsen: Senator, you’re here to fire up the democratic troops for Senator Obama. What’s your message? We always like to give our guests a little bit of a free throw, so what’s your message to Iowa?

Durbin: The message is I think people in Iowa need to understand the clear choice they’re going to have on November 4. And I think they do appreciate, many of them do, the importance of Iowa in this campaign of Barack Obama. I can recall coming here on February 10, 2007, the day that Barack announced in my hometown of Springfield – I introduced him. We had a little lunch, got on a plane and few over to Des Moines, and that was my first visit on behalf of the candidate – official candidate Barack Obama. I’ve now made about a dozen trips since then, maybe more. And I think what happened in the Iowa caucuses really launched Barack Obama. It gave him credibility as a national candidate against a very strong field. And now we want to make sure that that sense of change and that sense of involvement that was in Iowa during the caucuses is felt on November 4.

Glover: And you mentioned Ohio. There’s some charges coming out of Ohio about some voter registration fraud, some people who have been signed up and some groups that have been associated with Obama. What do you make of those charges?

Durbin: You know, some of this is extremely complicated in Ohio. I read about it this morning. There’s been a court decision there that calls for the verification of all of the new voters. I don’t know if that’s physically possible before the vote on November 4. And it’s being appealed to the Supreme Court, and they’re trying to work it out at the local level. And I will just tell you this: we don’t want anyone voting who is not legally qualified to vote; we don’t want anyone voting where there’s a legal question about their registration. But we don’t want to create a climate of fear and retribution for people who are voting. There’s been too much of that in the past. There are many people who have been intimidated by some of the tactics that have been used in the past. We don’t need that. We want everyone legally eligible to vote to be there. This is the most involved presidential election in history; 87% of the American people say “I’m watching this one closely,” and we want a big turnout. We want America to speak and we hope it’s decisive and in our favor.

Glover: And starting with Florida in 2000, there seems to be a mean and a nasty edge around presidential campaign with all the fighting in Florida, it’s all about power, it’s not about fairness. And we’re starting to see voter registration things in Ohio this time. Is the tenor of American politics just going downhill?

Durbin: It’s tough and it’s a rough business. I’ve got to tell you something, it’s changed a lot in the time that I’ve been around it. You have to expect the worst. And even if your opponent makes a promise that he’s not going to be involved in that sort of thing, there’s going to be some other group out there, 527 independent groups, often with their own agenda. We’ve seen ads – I won’t get into details – that really have been disappointing in terms of what we should expect on the American political scene. But you know what I think? I think in the end the voters sort it out. They start tossing out this negative advertising, the stuff that really doesn’t count. This stuff about what Bill Ayers did when Barack Obama was eight years old, for goodness sakes, what’s that got to do with putting this economy back on its feet and giving working families a fighting chance in America? They start tossing these things out and say let’s get down to the heart of it. Who’s going to make the changes in Washington that we think will help America’s future?

Henderson: Back to the Iowa caucuses. Much was made that Barack Obama, an African-American candidate, was able to win in a predominantly white state. This past week Congressman Murtha from Pennsylvania made some comments about the racist tendencies of voters in Pennsylvania. What role will race play in the results on November 4?

Durbin: That’s a very important question and I don’t know the answer to it. I can recall coming over here and campaigning for Barack and sitting down in the back room of a coffee shop in a rural Iowa town with a lot of faithful democrats. They closed the door and I looked them in the eye and they’d say, “Senator Durbin, can we really elect an African-American to be president of the United States?” And I said we can. You know, I’m just across the river – across that Mississippi River in part of Illinois that looks a lot like Iowa. And I want to tell you something; Barack Obama runs very well in my part of Illinois. It’s outside of Chicago. It looks like Iowa. People are very accepting once they sit down and measure a person. In this campaign Barack Obama, from February 2007 to today, has been analyzed in a hundred different directions. Fifteen years ago he wrote a comprehensive autobiography of his life. This man has told us who he is, what his values are, what he really wants to do as president. And I think that will overcome a lot of the hurdles for race. Younger voters, it’s not an issue. When you poll them, they say what’s the issue here? Those my age who can remember the Civil Rights struggle and still know what we’ve gone through as a nation look at this as a real turning point for America, not just to elect the right person for the job but to turn a page when it comes to America’s racial history.

Glover: And I’d like you to forecast a little bit, if you could, there’s been a lot of talk about newly engaged young people, a lot of talk about newly engaged African-Americans, and a big turnout. Historically young people and those groups haven’t turned out. Will they this time and what will drive them?

Durbin: I think they will. And I’ll tell you there are a number of reasons for it. I think a lot of it has to do with my colleague Barack Obama and the fact that he’s energized so many of them to not only register and vote but get personally involved at a level they’ve never been involved before. And he is the first – he’ll have a number of firsts, of course, if he’s elected, but he’s the first presidential candidate who understood the media that drives the vote of young people. I mean, it’s different than what you and I are used to looking to. When I got started in this business, get the news adjacency for thirty seconds on the network, try to get Thursday night, the biggest night of the week, and you’re home free. Nobody can tough you. Maybe you get 60 Minutes, toss that in too. Now it’s all about the Internet. It’s all about a contact level that we’re not used to, but most young people, whether it’s You Tube or whatever the Internet offers next week, Barack Obama’s campaign has been there. So I think he’s connected up with the media that young people really look to in a more effective way.

Glover: In returning to Kay’s race question, a lot of people say that Barack Obama answered the race question by winning Iowa, which is an overwhelming white state. But that was in a democratic universe. He’s in a general election universe now with undecided voters, republicans, conservatives. Can he make the sale in that universe?

Durbin: I believe he can. Of course, let me tell you something; he’s not going to win out over – even all of the democratic voters. Some of them cannot get over this hurdle of race. Let’s be very candid about that. But I think that number is diminishing. And I think many more people are stepping forward, new voters in particular who really don’t believe that should be in the equation. They want to take a look at both candidates and really measure them against what they think this country needs.

Henderson: Given the grave situation of the economy and a war on two fronts internationally, what should the first one hundred days of the new Congress be like come January?

Durbin: Well, you know, we changed the law and said that we were going to accelerate the transition when it comes to filling security positions in the new administration. Usually it takes months to go through FBI background checks, and a new administration really is in limbo, sitting on hold, waiting for that to occur. We’re accelerating that process. That’s a good thing. I think we should also do that for the key economic positions in the new administration too. We want to make sure that the people who are in those jobs are capable, no question about their background, but we can’t let this drag out. The emergency we face with our economy, as well as the security challenges we have, I think really argue for a much more expedited process when it comes to appointments. So I hope the first hundred days, Barack – if he’s elected – has his team in place and ready to move quickly, because I think the American people are going to look for the same kind of signal they looked for in March of 1933 when Franklin Roosevelt took over from Herbert Hoover and they waited to hear this new president speak about how we were going to come together as a nation and solve what was then the greatest economic crisis we’d ever faced.

Henderson: What would your role be?

Durbin: My role? A Senator from Illinois, I hope in the majority in the Senate – I think that’s possible – maybe with 60 votes doing my best to support a new administration to try to address these issues. You know, I was one of those 23 months ago that sat down privately with Barack and said, “You’ve got to do this, my friend. Even though you’re new to the business, you’ve got to do it. Sometimes you can pick the time and sometimes it picks you. This is it.” And I look at it now, and the chance is in a few weeks, if the voters make that choice, that Barack will be in a position to take over as president of the United States, January 20 of next year. And look what he faces: two wars, a looming recession, an energy crisis, health care crisis, global warming, bankruptcy, social security, and Medicare. Did I mention immigration? It’s a daunting agenda and he will need the support of the American people and of Congress to make any progress on this long list.

Glover: Senator, you’re modesty is appealing, but let’s get serious here. You were one of the original guys who got Barack Obama into the race. You’re the senior Senator from Illinois. A lot of people see you as his mentor in Illinois politics, in national politics. Aren’t you going to be a serious player in this administration, should he win?

Durbin: Well, I may be his first friend in the Senate, and he’ll need a lot of friends on Capitol Hill. I just want to help him be a successful president if the American people make that choice. You know, I’ve been involved in politics a number of years. It will be a great satisfaction for me if he’s chosen, and I’ll do everything I can to make sure that he’s successful because, if he is, then we’re going to find our way through some of the most difficult challenges we’ve ever faced.

Glover: And that’s a follow-up question. If you look at the agenda that he is going to face or John McCain is going to face come January, it is a terrible daunting one. We have a huge debt. We have a recession that’s if not here, looming. We have expensive wars going on. Isn’t the next president set up to fail?

Durbin: No, I don’t believe so. I’ll have to concede that whether you’re a president or a governor, being an executive when you have a shrinking economy is not an easy assignment. And the president will have a tough assignment because there will be a limit in the revenues coming into Washington and much greater demands for them to go out to fuel the economy, to serve the needs of people who are losing their jobs and need a helping hand. It’s a challenging time but you have to start with the right values, and I think Barack has really gotten down to the bottom line. We have to make sure that we fuel this economy by putting more money in the hands and pocketbooks of middle income families. I think they’ve been overlooked for the last eight years. The tax cuts, the majority or a large part of them, went to the highest paid people in America, people who didn’t need it and didn’t ask for it. And meanwhile, middle income families in Iowa and Illinois were struggling paying those gasoline bills and grocery bills and education and health expenses. And Barack has said let’s put the priority back in fueling this economy or middle income families and giving them a fighting chance.

Yepsen: Senator, put your majority whip hat on for us for a moment. There’s talk of Congress coming back for a lame duck session after the November election. Is that going to happen and what are you going to do?

Durbin: We will be back November 17, 18 and 19 for sure. I don’t know if there will be an additional attempt to meet before – during that same period. And I think we have a chance to consider a stimulus bill. There’s some things we ought to do that we know are long overdue. One, address unemployment in this country. We’ve lost so many jobs. In Illinois we lost one out of five manufacturing jobs during the last eight years, just hundreds of thousands of people who can’t find a good job. We need to extend their unemployment compensation benefits and give them a helping hand. Tom Harkin has been a real advocate when it comes to helping those families most in need, those who need food stamps and just need the basics in life to keep their families together during these difficult times. And we need to try to breathe some life into this economy in terms of creating jobs. I think we can put that on the table. It’s only going to pass if we have bipartisan support in the Senate and the House and we’ve come with this rescue plan for Wall Street, let’s really focus on people in communities and neighborhoods who need a helping hand too.

Henderson: Do you anticipate going back to the bailout plan and tinkering with it, adding new requirements for the money that’s being given to the private sector?

Durbin: Well, it may be tough to do but I’d sure like to get into it myself. There’s some parts of it that I think we passed and we needed to pass, but there’s some parts that need to be addressed.

Henderson: Such as?

Durbin: Executive compensation. I’m worried about whether or not we really put the limits on it that we wanted to. I don’t want the executives of these companies or banks that are getting all this federal money from hard-working taxpayers to walk out with any kind of bonuses or golden parachutes. I don’t want them passing on dividends out of taxpayers’ money to their shareholders. That wasn’t the intention at all. Secondly, I think we need to change the bankruptcy laws so we can say to people facing foreclosure into bankruptcy, the court can renegotiate the terms of your mortgage as they can on all of your other priority, your farm, your ranch, your vacation home. So that will be an incentive for negotiating better terms for mortgages that keep them out of foreclosure. I think that’s a provision I’d add as well.

Glover: Senator, you’re majority leader – or assistant majority leader in the Senate, but you’re also a Senator from Illinois. Let’s talk about some neighborhood issues, things that are going on in the Midwest, farm states like Illinois and like Iowa. Senator McCain has said he opposed the new farm bill that just went on the books. Senator Obama has supported it. How big of a problem is that for Senator McCain, not just in Illinois and Iowa but around the Midwest?

Durbin: I don’t think John McCain understands the economy of the Midwest. I mean, I take a look at the fact that he opposed the crop insurance bill – the original crop insurance bill and voted against the farm bill. You know, when corn was at $7 or $8 a bushel, people said, well, why are you worried about a safety net. Guess what, it’s under $4 now. A lot of farmers are saying my input costs aren’t going down, but the price of a bushel of corn is going down. John McCain was opposed to that safety net. Then he came out and more or less boasted the other night during the debate that he had opposed the ethanol subsidies. Well, he did, historically oppose them. If we didn’t have those ethanol programs, I don’t think that industry would have grown the way it’s grown, and we would be even more dependent on foreign fuel. It’s not a very thoughtful position. And he opposed the water resources development act! This was the bill that we finally passed after seven years over President Bush’s veto that builds the levees to protect communities that are threatened with floods and rebuilds the locks and dams along the Mississippi River so we can move the commerce of the Midwest to market. John McCain’s positions on those three issues are completely out of touch with the economy of Iowa and of Illinois.

Henderson: In Iowa we make ethanol out of corn. In other countries they make it out of sugar cane. There’s a tariff. Should that tariff be lifted on sugar cane?

Durbin: No, no. And John McCain said it should be. And the reason it should not be is when Brazil, the largest developer or producer of ethanol in the world, got started on their program using sugar, they said we’re not going to allow foreign ethanol in until we’ve established our domestic industry. We should take the same approach. There will come a time in the future when our industry is mature and we will have to be in global competition. I understand that. But at this point to allow them to bring in cheap ethanol from Brazil made out of sugar is to undercut operations that are just starting for ethanol development in America. And John McCain’s position really doesn’t understand what this would do. If you drive those ethanol producers out of business in the Midwest in Iowa and in Illinois, it’s going to mean less demand for corn, lower corn prices, more federal subsidies and more dependence on foreign fuel.

Glover: What do you say to those who say that this ethanol industry, the subsidies for ethanol, the diversion of corn into ethanol is driving up food prices to make it tougher for low income people to –

Durbin: Well, let me tell you, the price of corn has gone down from $7 or $8 a bushel to about $4 a bushel, and I haven’t noticed the price of corn flakes has gone down a penny. When it comes to the price of hamburger or meat, you look at the things that we use our corn products for, and those things are still extremely expensive in the grocery stores. So the small input costs of corn or soybeans under these products I don’t think is a driving force in terms of their cost, just marginally but not to the level that we’ve seen.

Henderson: Given budget reality, should American farmers, though, expect ag subsidies to be cut?

Durbin: I think that it gets down to their situation, what they face. If the price of the commodity at the market – corn around I think $3.86 as we taped this show and soybeans a little over $8 a bushel – if that is not a price that really covers input costs and creates profitability, the government has to step in. Or if there’s an intervening weather event, whether it’s a drought or a flood, the government needs to step in. But in good times America farmers, corn growers and others, have to expect that they’re on their own. We’re not here to provide any helping hand to a farmer who’s doing well. There was a time last year when that was the case, maybe not so much this year, but you have to look at each individual year. I found over time that when you take a position like John McCain’s, it really doesn’t – it’s not sensitive to the reality of …

Yepsen: Senator, I want to go back to this question of what faces the lame duck Congress and what faces, then, the next Congress and the new president. You know, as I look at the issues – as you look at the issues facing the country as an American political leader and the challenges you face, aren’t your old tools for dealing with them not working? We’ve got record levels of debt, which makes it difficult for you to spend more money the way Franklin Roosevelt did. The lack of money means it’s difficult for republicans to cut taxes. So where do you go in the toolbox for solutions to economic problems?

Durbin: Let me take it from a different angle. If you come across an accident and there’s someone who appears to be bleeding to death, do you check the price of the tourniquet before you pull it out of the box and use it? No. You realize that if you don’t apply that tourniquet and do it quickly, that person could die. If we don’t move quickly to get this economy back on its feet, to apply the tourniquet to stop the bleeding, then sadly we’re going to be in for a long recession and a lot of pain to follow. Now, I will concede, this isn’t an easy time nor an easy challenge. It’s tough. But if you’re going to move this economy out of recession, you’ve got to continue that we have to put some fuel into this economy with tax cuts for working families, with the kind of tax cuts for small businesses that will give them a fighting chance. And Barack had an announcement on that last week. I might also – I’d like to say a word about health care, if I can too. Well, we’ve got a stark contrast. John McCain has now proposed, the Wall Street Journal reported, dramatic cuts in Medicare and Medicaid to pay for his health care plan. That’s going to mean a 20% cut in Medicare that 500,000 Iowans depend on and over 100,000 who depend on Medicaid, children, are going to see cutbacks in their benefits because of John McCain’s health care plan.

Yepsen: Senator, we’re out of time. Thanks for being with us today. You’ve been a good surrogate for Barack Obama. And we want your viewers to know we’ve invited the republicans to provide a surrogate as well. So thank you for being with us.

Durbin: Thank you. Appreciate it.

Yepsen: Now, on our next edition of Iowa Press we look to the Iowa statehouse and to the impact of the upcoming balance of power there. Joining us are two legislative leaders in the Iowa House of Representatives – Kevin McCarthy, a democrat from Des Moines, is the majority leader in the House and Christopher Rants, a republican from Sioux City, is the House minority leader – and they’ll be here to discuss the issues heading into the general election. We return next weekend at our regular Iowa Press airtimes, Friday at 7:30 and Sunday morning at 11:30. I hope you’ll tune in. I’m David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us here on statewide Iowa Public Television.

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