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Newly Elected Senators Assess Priorities en Route to Capitol Hill

November 6, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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After Tuesday's election, a handful of newly elected U.S. senators will help reshape the Congress. Senators-elect Jim Risch, R-Idaho, Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. assess their goals and what influence they will have on the 111th Congress.

MARGARET WARNER: The Senate will have at least eight new faces when it convenes next January. Six are Democrats; two are Republicans.

The Democratic winners all took Republican seats, expanding their Senate majority to at least 57.

We extended invitations to all eight newly elected senators, and three of them join us now.

Republican Jim Risch is with us from Boise, Idaho. Currently Idaho’s lieutenant governor, he won the seat held by retiring Republican Sen. Larry Craig.

Democrat Mark Udall is in Denver, Colo. Now a congressman, he’ll replace retiring Republican Sen. Wayne Allard.

And Democrat Jeff Merkley joins us from Portland, Ore. The speaker of the Oregon House, he was declared the winner of his race against Republican Gordon Smith just hours ago.

And welcome to you all, and congratulations.

JEFF MERKLEY (D), Senator-elect, Oregon: It’s tremendous to be with you.

MARK UDALL (D), Senator-elect, Colorado: Thank you to have us on here.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Speaker Merkley, let’s begin with you. Your victory, as we said, is just hours old. How does it feel?

JEFF MERKLEY: Well, it feels tremendous. It’s been a 16-month journey of presenting competing visions of where our nation goes. And I think the message that our nation is off track and Oregon needs to be part of putting it back on track got through. And I’m so glad to be a senator-elect.

MARGARET WARNER: So what message do you think the voters of Oregon were sending, in terms of what they expect from you, when they not only went Democratic for president, as they did in 2004, but ousted a Republican and put you in?

JEFF MERKLEY: I think they’re expecting us to focus on issues that families are facing around the kitchen table. Certainly, issues of the cost of health care, the creation of living wage jobs, investment in education.

And I also think that they want us to respond to the tremendous price pressures they’re feeling on things like oil, like the cost at the pump.

We have an energy policy that’s been great if you’re an oil company and terrible if you’re an American citizen. And we have to change that, end our dependence on foreign oil, and stop sending $2 billion a day overseas, and start tackling global warming.

Heeding voters' demands

Mark Udall
Democratic Sen.-elect, Colorado
I think all of us know that there's been a certain amount of dysfunctionality over the last eight years. But I know my Republican friends and my Democratic friends are eager to go back to work and get on what really matters to our country.

MARGARET WARNER: Lieutenant Governor Risch, now, the voters of Idaho went for John McCain, though by a smaller margin than they did for President Bush in 2004, and they elected you. How do you interpret that, in terms of what the voters of Idaho are looking for?

JIM RISCH (R), Senator-elect, Idaho: Well, I don't know that really the results are what you look at to interpret much.

We've had long discussions during the election as to what the issues are, and the issues are very important to Idaho people, really, I think to the American people.

Clearly, the economy is at the very top of the list. We're very interested in an energy policy, as Speaker Merkley just referred to.

Obviously, we have two wars going on. And at least one of those needs to be wound down. Like every American, I think Idahoans are impatient to see that the Iraqis step up and that we can disengage there.

These are not Republican-Democrat issues. These are American issues. We were all Americans long before we were Republicans or Democrats. And we need to approach these important issues like that.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you're going to be new to Washington. Are you bracing yourself for the famed Washington gridlock? Or are you expecting something different?

JIM RISCH: Well, you know, I'm not new to politics. This was my 32nd election, and I spent 22 years in the state senate. I've been elected as a local elected official. I've been the governor of this great state and the lieutenant governor of this great state.

I've known all the people we've sent back to Washington, D.C. I've dealt with them. So I'm familiar with the process back there to a degree. And it is clearly different than how we manage things at the state level, but you've got to deal with it as it is and do your best to make it better.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Congressman Udall, Senator-elect Udall, now, you're no stranger to Washington. You've been here 10 years. How different is it going to be for you, new job and do you think a new atmosphere?

MARK UDALL: Margaret, I think both Speaker Merkley and Gov. Risch understand what I heard a lot on the campaign trail, which was I think best typified by a woman out in the San Luis Valley here in our wonderful state.

She said to me, "Mark, would you take what you know, listen to us here in Colorado, and go back to Washington and get something done?" And I think, for the broad majority of voters, that means making sure that people are employed, doing everything we can to keep people in their homes, implement a comprehensive energy policy, and find a way clear -- honorable and responsible way clear of Iraq, and then finish the job in Afghanistan.

Overarching all of that is a call to work together. And I'm anticipating a different atmosphere in Washington.

I think all of us know that there's been a certain amount of dysfunctionality over the last eight years. But I know my Republican friends and my Democratic friends are eager to go back to work and get on what really matters to our country, which is a fresh start, and ensure that our economy gets back on its feet. That will keep America strong.

Priorities for Obama and Congress

Jim Risch
Republican Sen.-elect, Idaho
I don't believe there's any question about that. We've got to get this economy back on track. It is an issue that is important to every American, and it is a national security issue.

MARGARET WARNER: Speaker Merkley, back to you. You've all listed the sort of basket of issues that we know our country faces. But if you had one priority, the thing you think the president and the new Congress really need to focus on, what is it?

JEFF MERKLEY: Well, it's absolutely jobs. We've been shipping our jobs overseas by subsidizing the construction operation of foreign factories; that makes no sense.

We need to revisit trade policy so that are handicapping our ability to build and sell things here in America.

And I think we have to approach our economy as one that we build by having strong families. Strong families, the foundation is a living wage job.

We've experimented with trickle-down and favors for the powerful special interests the last eight years. It hasn't worked. We've got to change our approach.

MARGARET WARNER: Lieutenant Gov. Risch, do you agree the economy, given the state -- dire state of it right now, is the number-one?

JIM RISCH: I don't believe there's any question about that. We've got to get this economy back on track. It is an issue that is important to every American, and it is a national security issue.

And we can do this. We're Americans. We've been through tough times before. And I have every confidence that we can do this.

I think what we need to do is see that the packages that have been passed are properly executed. That needs to be overseen closely, I think.

And, secondly, we need to take steps to see that this sort of thing doesn't happen again. And there are ways to do that, I believe. And, again, they're not partisan ways; I think there are bipartisan ways to do this.

MARGARET WARNER: Mark Udall, is fixing the economy the top of your list, too?

MARK UDALL: It is, and I agree with both Jeff and Jim. And what I would add in the mix to fix the economy is to really aggressively pursue a new green energy economy.

And those of us in the West -- and Jim and Jeff are a part of this know -- that we're so well-positioned with our abundant sun, and wind, and the brainpower that we have out here, but that would help get our economy back on its feet, a massive investment across the board in renewable energy.

Cooperation with the new president

Jeff Merkley
Democratic Sen.-elect, Oregon
Paralysis will not be acceptable in the U.S. Senate. We've got to be able to get bills to the floor and be able to move an agenda to make things happen.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Mark Udall, in Colorado, you're one of the states that they not only elected you, but they switched their allegiance in the presidential contest from Republican to Democrat. Do you see yourself as part of an Obama sweep and, therefore, as a part of a sort of Team Obama coming to Washington?

MARK UDALL: Well, Colorado has been trending this way, as has the entire West. But I think Gov. Risch really put his finger on it. In the West, we're pragmatic. We like to solve problems and grab opportunity.

And we've done that here in Colorado with renewable energy. We've done that in solving a budgetary crisis that was hamstringing our educational institutions and our infrastructure needs.

So there's this combined movement out here that -- let's buckle down, get to work, and remember, as Governor Risch said, we're all Americans in the end. And the best ideas aren't Democratic or Republican party ideas; they're American ideas.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Jeff Merkley, going to you, I mean, President-elect Obama is counting on this heftier Democratic majority in both the House and the Senate. Do you think the voters of your state want you to stick with the president most of the time?

JEFF MERKLEY: Well, I think they expect a very close partnership. No, this gives us right now 57 folks in a working majority to make sure that the filibuster is not used to paralyze our nation.

Paralysis will not be acceptable in the U.S. Senate. We've got to be able to get bills to the floor and be able to move an agenda to make things happen.

It'd be enormously frustrating if we are -- a situation, with a tremendous, visionary president, a strong team, but unable to move bills through the Senate. So I expect a lot of partnership and collaboration, a very bipartisan, problem-solving approach to putting this nation back on track.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Lieutenant Gov. Risch, as a Republican, I mean, I know you said you're pragmatic and you want to solve problems, but now the voters of Idaho went for John McCain 61 percent to 36 percent over Barack Obama.

What do you think their expectations are, in terms of the degree of cooperation with the new president or opposition?

JIM RISCH: Well, again, I would go back to what Mark Udall said, and that is those of us that do live out west, we're pragmatic people. We're get-it-done people. We are objective-oriented. And I think that's what Idahoans want.

It isn't necessarily Republican or Democrat ideas; it's American ideas, as Mark said. And we need to work together to make those ideas work.

Now, certainly there are things we're going to have philosophical differences on. But, you know, when you sit down at the table, whether you're a conservative, a liberal, Republican, Democrat, what you find after discussion and open-minded discussion is you usually have a whole lot more in common than you do at the other end, at the outer ends of the spectrum.

So what we need to do is to sit down at that table, find the common ground, and get to work, and make those things work.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just press you on this. So are you saying that -- if you basically agree with the way President Obama wants to go on an issue, even if your leadership is opposed, you'd feel free to vote with the president and the Democrats?

JIM RISCH: You know, I spent -- out of the 22 years I was in the state senate, I was in leadership all but my freshman year, so I know exactly how leadership works.

Leadership listens very closely to the members of their caucus. And what we need to do is all get together and talk about what will make life better for Idahoans, what will make life better for Americans, and then we need to pull the wagon together.

And, as I said, we need to identify and isolate the things that we have in common, and let's make those things work.

Americans' high expectations

Jim Risch
Republican Sen.-elect, Idaho
Americans should have high expectations. And I think all of us that are headed for Congress need to rededicate ourselves to meet those expectations.

MARGARET WARNER: I'd like to close with a quick whip around, if I might, on this question of expectations, because President-elect Obama is clearly concerned that Americans have inflated expectations about what can be done.

And beginning with you, Jeff Merkley, you've all been out on the hustings now for months. How concerned are you that the American public has too high expectations for what can be done?

JEFF MERKLEY: Well, I'm really not concerned about that. What I'm concerned about is that the Senate actually fulfill those expectations. I think we need to move quickly on health care, on the war in Iraq, on jobs, certainly on a new, smart, energy policy. We need to seize this moment in 2009 to really move this nation forward.

MARGARET WARNER: Lieutenant Gov. Risch, expectations?

JIM RISCH: Well, I think that Americans' expectations should be high. After all, we are Americans. We're the most successful culture, even though we're only 300 million on a 7 billion-person planet. We have taken ourselves and we've taken the rest of the world to where it is today.

Americans should have high expectations. And I think all of us that are headed for Congress need to rededicate ourselves to meet those expectations.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Sen.-elect Udall, are you at all concerned that high, high expectations put all of you potentially in jeopardy?

MARK UDALL: I believe Coloradoans are ahead of the political leaders, Margaret. They know that this is going to be challenging. They know that we need a call to action.

But I think that's the opportunity here with the new president, with the new Congress, is to demonstrate to them that we can lead, that we'll implement the kind of policies that both Jim and Jeff just outlined.

I think we all relish the chance to get America moving again, to turn the page. America is a land of fresh starts, and let's get to it.

I'm eager to join Jeff and Jim and all the new senators as soon as possible.

MARGARET WARNER: Senators-elect Mark Udall of Colorado, Jim Risch of Idaho, and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, thank you all.