Iowa Public Television


U.S. Senator Charles Grassley (R)

posted on September 20, 2013

Showdown.  Again.  Congress lacks consensus authorizing continued federal spending and raising the nation's debt limit.  Federal agencies preparing for shutting down October 1st.  Iowa Senator Charles Grassley has seen it before and we're questioning him on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: Senator Charles Grassley marked a milestone this past week with an exclamation point, on this 80th birthday running from his Alexandria, Virginia residence to his Capitol Hill office.  That's more than six miles.  But then it was down to business and congressional business this past week was punctuated by another mass shooting, this time hardly a mile away from the Capitol at the Washington Navy Yard.  And on Capitol Hill a political standoff.  Some members of Congress holding the nation's spending and borrowing authority hostage, demanding spending cuts and defunding President Obama's signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act.  So for Senator Grassley, the easiest part of that day may have been the six mile run to the Capitol.  Senator Grassley, thanks for finding time to be with us today.

Grassley: Thank you.  I appreciate the opportunity.

Borg: And across the Iowa Press table, Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson. 

Henderson: Senator, belated Happy Birthday.

Grassley: Well, thank you very much.

Henderson: By running to the Capitol, by being on Iowa Press, by having an active schedule of town hall meetings, going to all 99 counties this year, are you telegraphing to Iowans that you're healthy enough to run again?

Grassley: I'm not doing anything, well, the additional three miles that I ran this week is something brand new.  But that was my birthday present to myself, a new plateau on maybe doing more things vigorously than I have over the last fifteen years.  Beyond that, everything you mentioned isn't anything different than I've been doing for a long period of time.  But I think it's very important that you try to stay vigorous, whatever age you are, so you can do a better job.  And so I'm just doing what I normally do.

Obradovich: You're vigorous and yet you're in an institution that has been marked by inactivity.  As Dean mentioned in the open, bad week in Washington.  A mass shooting, the standoff over the budget.  I heard a national political columnist this week say that it's the worst it has ever been in Washington.  As you reflect back over your time, is that true?  Is it the worst it has ever been in Washington right now?

Grassley: It is from the standpoint of partisanship.  But if you're talking about a vacuum that there's certain periods of time you don't seem to get a lot of legislation through the United States Senate, no, I wouldn't say that that is any different.  I wouldn't want to say how many times it's been similar.  But the partisanship is greater and not to put anything on the, any responsibility on the President, but particularly when you have a divided Congress between a democratic Senate and a republican House it's all the more reason you need the President interacting with Congress more than ever before and he seems to have the least interaction with members of Congress of any president I've served under.  And that would help.  It won't solve all the problems but it would advance the ball down the field tremendously if he would get more involved in the legislative process.

Obradovich: Some people might just throw up their hands and say, enough is enough.  Does this frustrate you or does it energize you to want to do something different?

Grassley: You mean something different in the way of legislation or process?

Obradovich: Or in how you approach your job as Senator.

Grassley: I think the principles of the job of being in Washington, as you know I haven't missed a vote in 6,700 votes, being there doing the job and when we aren't in session being in Iowa interacting with people, that doesn't change.  Those are basic principles of the job.  I think that what would make a difference to me is the extent to which we would have leaders in the Congress do more what Senator Baucus and I did in the ten years that we were on the Finance Committee, we would meet once a week, we would meet once a week to go over the agenda of the committee and we produced bipartisan legislation, maybe in ten years three of four pieces of legislation that were partisan out of committee, otherwise they got to the President and were signed by the President.

Borg: Well, partisan, I mentioned that continuing resolution that substitutes for a real federal budget and the House of Representatives Friday morning on a vote of 230 to 189 did pass a CR, as they call it, continuing resolution, but stripped funding for Obamacare from that continuing resolution.  President Obama this past week called that extortion.  Others would contend that big measures require extraordinary things to do.  So how do you characterize it?  Do you think that shutting down the federal government, as may be possible, is a necessary consequence to get things done?

Grassley: No and it doesn't have to happen and it's not going to happen this time.  I think that there's too much talk of Armageddon.  And for instance, whether it's the authority to borrow money or the authority to pass a continuing resolution, we can finance 84% of what we spend out of the tax money coming in.  Well, beyond that it is a case of prioritization.  The President has got the power of prioritization and if they don't, I'm a co-sponsor of the full faith and credit legislation that would force the Secretary of Treasury to prioritize what you're going to spend and not spend so you do not have to shut down government.  But there is the time it was shut down in 1995, nothing was accomplished and that is precedent enough that I don't think it's going to happen again.  But I don't think it stops you, the things you brought up about Obamacare is just one example, there's other things that you could bring up.  But in that particular case I think that when I voted against a piece of legislation, voted to repeal it once, the President has admitted at least five times or six times he has delayed things, he has stopped things from happening.  There's a lot of problems with Obamacare and if you want to defund it or slow it down for a year like he did for corporations, do it for individuals, it seems to me that is a legitimate part of the debate.

Obradovich: How can you be so sure that government is not going to shut down?  Most of the talk in Washington is that this continuous resolution actually makes it more likely.  You're just saying it won't shut down because they can keep funding it in back channel ways?

Grassley: Sure.  Well, the back channel ways are about running out, at the end of October that's running out.  But there is the tax money coming in that can finance 84% of what we do, the other 16% you can prioritize.  But that's, listen, what is really going to happen, and this is more process than it is substance, but the House passes a bill, it will come to the Senate, the Senate majority will take out anything dealing with Obamacare, send it back to the House of Representatives, they'll accept it because they won't want to shut down the government and it's going to go to the President and the President is going to sign it.  Now, that sounds like a total victory for the President and Obamacare.  It is from that standpoint but it's a total victory for the republicans too and fiscal conservatives because the level of funding is at the status quo level, the same decision that was made two years ago, we've had level funding for two years and this maintains that level of funding.  That is $98 billion less than what the democrats want to spend.

Henderson: But it's not a victory for those in your party who do not want to see Obamacare implemented and it's not a victory for Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee who have been pressing on this issue.

Grassley: But it does say to the people of this country that don't like Obamacare, remember only 35% of the people in this country approve of this program, it shows that if you want to defund it or you want to repeal it you fought right up to the cliff.

Obradovich: Speaking of fighting right up to the cliff, the next cliff that comes along is the debt limit.  Is that something that you see this Obamacare fight continuing to that point?  I mean, this thing is going to take effect in a couple of weeks, people are going to be starting to sign up for exchanges, the federal government has already given states billions of dollars to set up their exchanges.  I mean, at what point is it too late to stop Obamacare?

Grassley: Well, I think that issue could come up again.  If it loses on the continuing resolution you’re going to see it come up wherever it comes up.  But you're also going to see other things that are part of the bargaining to extend the authority of the government to continue to borrow.  XL Pipeline, if the President wants to help unemployment let's build the pipeline and create 20,000 jobs almost instantly, as an example.

Henderson: What is happening with the Farm Bill?  Is there any prospect for some resolution?  The House took a vote this past week on the part of the Farm Bill that deals will food stamps and with nutrition programs.  It seems as if there may be stalemate on that.

Grassley: I think the stalemate ended when the House passed 217 to 210 the food stamp portion of it.  That will now go to conference.  Remember, the Senate already passed a bipartisan bill with the Farm Bill and the food stamp together.  We went to conference, asked to go to conference August 1st, the House will now do that and you'll get the conferees together --

Henderson: By October 1st?

Grassley: No.

Henderson: By December 31st?

Grassley: Yeah.  Before December 31st.

Borg: No, as Kay has said, there are two separate bills here.  The farm bill is separate now from the Food and Nutrition Bill which is called SNAP and this past week two of your former colleagues, former South Dakota Senator Daschle and former Majority Leader from Kansas Bob Dole had an editorial in the Los Angeles Times in which they called it, we have it up on the screen right now, at least a paragraph from it, this is no time to play politics with hunger because, they say, it's a bad idea to separate the Farm Bill, the people producing food, from those who are consuming it and couldn't buy it otherwise.

Grassley: I don't disagree with Dole and Daschle.  I'll give you an idealistic answer and a practical answer.  I get tired of reading in the New York Times about the $800 billion bloated Farm Bill, just like all that money is going to the farmer's pockets and only 20% goes for agriculture and just a few percentage points actually to benefit the family farmer.  So I would like to see them separated.  But that's not practical.  They've got to be together in order to get a Farm Bill through the House of Representatives and you will have a bill come out of conference that is the same as the Senate went in.

Borg: They will be linked.

Grassley: They have to be linked or you're never going to get a Farm Bill through the House of Representatives.

Henderson: But what do you say to your fellow republicans, including those in the House, who look at those farm subsidies and detest them?

Grassley: Well, very easy answer to that, we do away with direct payments.  There won't be any more direct payments.  That saves $15 billion of the $23 billion that we saved in the House -- or the Senate bill.

Henderson: So why should farmers get subsidies to buy insurance when you don't give subsidies to buy insurance to private business owners?

Grassley: We do -- there's so much.  It's a history of the federal government being an insurer of last resort for natural disasters, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, tornados, we step in to help those.  Now, if you don't want to have crop insurance and have the farmers pay for 50% of it, maybe you'd rather have disaster programs and have the taxpayers pay 100% of it.  It's better to manage risk ahead of time.  That is why the crop insurance program and have the farmers pay for it and plan ahead instead of waiting until the disaster happens.  Then is Congress going to deliver?  Then you get mixed up in all the politics of disaster relief.  But we're going to treat the American farmer the same way we treat the hurricane or the earthquake disaster victim or the flood disaster victim or else we shouldn't be helping anybody that has a natural disaster.

Obradovich: Senator, you mentioned the XL Pipeline before and we expect that that negotiation will be part of the discussion about the debt ceiling.  Do you believe it's appropriate to use that leverage when the consequence could be the loss in the full faith and credit of the U.S. government?  Is it appropriate to bargain around that particular issue?

Grassley: When the President says he's not going to negotiate with the Congress, or more specifically the republicans in Congress, every day you hear him on television saying he wants to negotiate with Assad, so why wouldn't he want to negotiate and be a real political leader in the United States?  It just doesn't make sense.  And there's only -- I can't give you the exact time, but there's only been once in recent 30 or 40 year period of time that there haven't been other things that have gone along with increasing the debt ceiling.

Obradovich: But I think the President is trying to draw a line in the sand saying that it's not appropriate for the federal government to negotiate with the possibility of not paying the bills that Congress has already racked up.  I mean, he's trying to draw a line saying that that's not going to be a point of bargaining.  He's not saying he's not going to negotiate on everything, right?  So, is that the wrong line in the sand for him to draw?

Grassley: That's why you heard me say earlier in this program that 84% of our expenditures can be funded -- that's the tax money coming in and it's not Armageddon but they're going to lay out Armageddon and if he wants to draw a line in the sand what sort of credibility is he going to have for that line in the sand any more credibility than he had in the line he drew in the sand against the Syrians?

Borg: Did I hear you say that President Obama is more likely to talk to foreign dictators than he is to republicans?

Grassley: The answer to that is yes.  Well, even -- he's not even talking to democrats on Capitol Hill.  Just one year ago you would have seen on the front page of the Washington Post a story with four pictures of four prominent democrats that said he hadn't talked to them in a year.

Henderson: There was a mass shooting in Washington, D.C. this past week.  You have suggested the response from Congress should be related to mental health issues.  How?  What?

Grassley: Well, I think a couple of things.  One, mental health unrelated to guns or anything else isn't getting the attention it ought to.  Secondly, related to guns, states are not submitting to the data register in Washington, the one where they have background checks, people that have mental health issues and we need more of that reporting.  But neither one -- well the first part that I told you, if we can get a better mental health program it would help identify people like this because there's plenty of reasons going to the VA in Rhode Island and Washington, D.C. seeking help from insomnia and that he was hearing voices it should have sent a signal to somebody and he should have gotten a background check to get access to the naval base in the first place.

Henderson: A signal has been sent from President Obama to the new President of Iran, they have been corresponding.  Israel cautions against believing it's a new day in Iran.  What do you believe?  Is it a new day in Iran?

Grassley: It might be but it's too early to say.  The only indication I had came in a secret briefing that I won't refer to but the insinuation was that when Syria is a client of Iran that, and the new president comes in, they have been talking and we've been threatening to send tomahawks into Syria, it didn't seem to stop the talks from continuing.  And it wasn't brought up.

Obradovich: You mention the President is talking to President Assad in Syria.  Did his strategy actually work as far as threatening military action in order to get this negotiation going --

Grassley: It wasn't a strategy, it happened by accident.

Obradovich: So it was just pure luck?

Grassley: Yeah.

Borg: Quickly, the EPA issued new regulations Friday morning on carbon pollution from new power plants.  It almost certainly will prevent the building of new coal fired power plants?  Good idea?

Grassley: No, not at all.  It's a rejection of everything Congress has stood for, democrats and republicans in the Senate are not for the climate change legislation that passed the House four years ago.  And he is another example of legislating by regulation.  He may have the authority to do it but he is going against the interests of Congress.  More importantly he is going against the interests of Iowa where 60-70% of our electricity comes from coal.  He's going to drive up the cost of production, the cost of living, everything in Iowa with a program that is not needed.

Borg: Nothing you can do about it?

Grassley: Yeah, there's four things we can do about it but probably none of them will happen because they'll have to go to the President for a signature -- use a congressional veto, put a, write an appropriation bill say these regulations can't go into effect and then one that Congress can do but probably business will do, go to courts and try to get it stopped.

Obradovich: Turning back to politics here in Iowa, this week the Appanoose County republican committee voted that they were not confident in the state party chairman A.J. Spiker, feel it is time for him to resign.  They said that he has divided the party he has been unable to raise funds.  Do you agree?

Grassley: The only thing I know about the decisions lately of the committee is when to hold the convention.  I don't follow the workings of the central committee that close so I would say in regard to that debate that's going on in the central committee, the sooner that we can have a convention and have the general election get started, the better off the country will be, the better off the chances of giving me a republican colleague.

Obradovich: Are you confident in the leadership of A.J. Spiker for your party here in Iowa?

Grassley: I don't follow that.  Every conversation I had with him has been friendly and he has asked me to do things for the party like being finance chair, honorary finance chair, holding events for them, signing letters to go out to raise money, it's been a very cooperative relationship.

Borg: Just a final question.  We opened with a question about your vim and vigor and I just need to close it with that.  How are you feeling toward looking toward another term in the Senate?

Grassley: I'm planning on running for re-election.  I'm making plans but it's not taking much of my time.  I'm concentrating on doing my job for Iowans, being there when we're in session, doing my oversight, doing my legislation, holding my town meetings in the 99 counties every year and just doing what a Senator ought to do and I'm a firm believer if you do a good job what you're doing people recognize it and the future takes care of itself.

Borg: So it would be a real surprise if you didn't run again.

Grassley: I said I am making plans to run for re-election.

Borg: Thank you for being with us today.

Grassley: Thank you.  I'm glad to be with you.

Borg: And in just a moment we'll continue Iowa Press as Des Moines Register Political Writer Jennifer Jacobs joins us for some conversation.

Borg: Jennifer Jacobs joining us now for a roundtable discussion.  Jennifer, I hardly have to ask, what are you going to write from what you heard Senator Grassley say?

Jacobs: Wow.  Chuck Grassley is running for re-election in 2016.  That's big.

Borg: What does that mean?  Why big?

Jacobs: Well, as he was leaving he was telling us that Harkin's decision, Senator Tom Harkin's decision to retire at the end of next year influenced his decision because he doesn't want Iowa to be left in two years from now with two very junior senators.  So he said that actually influenced him and he said he feels like Iowans think he's doing a good job so he might as well keep on going.

Obradovich: I kind of wonder, Dean, if voters will also take this into account as they are looking at who they should pick to replace Senator Harkin.  Iowans now for decades have, a lot of people have split their tickets, had one republican and one democrat, now they know that Chuck Grassley is going to be around for at least one more term if that plays into their decision at all or if voters have changed their mind about having a party split in their senators.

Borg: Kay, what do you think about what you heard?  Senator Grassley you think was ready to announce that today?

Henderson: I'm not sure he was.  His posture, the way he held his head, I think it was sort of pulled out of him like a dentist might pull a bad tooth.  I'm not sure that he has talked about it with a wide variety of people.  As he was leaving the studio he said he talked about it with his staff.  So it would be interesting --

Borg: So we were the first to hear.

Henderson: -- so viewers to this program may be in on a big piece of news here.  I think the interesting thing, as Jennifer mentioned, was a lot of people have been sort of putting the story out that oh, Harkin is leaving so this is going to put more pressure on Grassley to retire because of his age.  Well, it seems to have put less pressure on him which is sort of contrary to what everybody thought.

Borg: Jennifer, how does this at all -- we've talked a little bit about how it influences the race for Harkin's yet to be vacant seat.  But what about the republican candidates in the republican race to run against Bruce Braley?

Jacobs: As far as how does it affect them?

Borg: Yes.

Jacobs: Well, it gives them confidence that when they get to the U.S. Senate they will have a republican partner there.

Borg: So it just further strengthens their candidacies?

Jacobs: I would say so.

Borg: Yeah.  What would you say, though, about the status and the health of Iowa's Republican Party as it relates to what Senator Grassley said today?

Jacobs: Well, he didn't really want to weigh in on the fight over whether there should be a vote of no confidence on A.J. Spiker, the chairman.  But as far as an overall mutiny it doesn't seem like that's going to happen.  There is a growing movement at the county level GOP organizations to possibly overthrow the leadership at GOP headquarters in Iowa.

Borg: A.J. Spiker's leadership.

Jacobs: Correct.  And to change the board that actually runs the headquarters as well. 

Henderson: But that will take months.  It's not going to happen on Monday when this group of people, the state central committee, meet.  There are not enough votes on that committee, if you look at who people have been aligned with in the past, there aren't enough votes on that committee to vote A.J. Spiker out as chairman.  That is only going to happen when there's new membership on that governing board.

Obradovich: I think Senator Grassley's revelation that he is for sure planning to run again explains a lot why he does not want to wade into that fight.  You've still got a contingent of the Republican Party who really are supporters of A.J. Spiker, they don't want to see him thrown out, they want that sort of libertarian movement of the party represented.  So I can see why Grassley would not want to wade into that.

Borg: There's a possibility too, Kay, of different dates for the caucuses coming up.  Tell me a little bit about the background on that.

Henderson: Not a possibility, there actually are two different days of the week in which the 2014 Iowa caucuses will be held. Democrats are holding them on one day, republicans are holding them on a different day.  I don't think that date is going to be changed any time soon but there's a lot of pressure on the GOP to align itself with democrats.

Obradovich: It's an off-year caucus, it doesn't get the scrutiny of the big presidential caucuses in Iowa but it's still important because republicans and democrats have historically worked together and now they're not.

Borg: Jennifer, what do you feel about that?  Is it indicative of things just not humming along the way they should in Iowa politics?

Jacobs: It's another criticism of the chairman at GOP headquarters.  It's another, you know, kind of worry about his leadership.  Those party caucuses do have a lot of implications.  If the U.S. Senate race or the first congressional race are not conclusive then those two seats, the nominees will be decided at conventions.  And so the people who show up at the 2014 caucuses will be kingmakers, it will be making big decisions.

Obradovich: Yeah, absolutely, and the people who can reliably show up on caucus night, the people who have done it in the past are the folks that elected A.J. Spiker in the current central committee.

Borg: Thanks for your insights.  And we'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next week, same times, 7:30 Friday night, noon on Sunday.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.

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