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Delaware’s Chris Coons: ‘All Options on the Table’ for Deficit Cuts

November 11, 2010 at 6:28 PM EDT
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As part of the NewsHour's series of conversations with newly-elected lawmakers, Judy Woodruff talks to Delaware's Senator-elect, Democrat Chris Coons.

JIM LEHRER: Next: another of our conversations with November 2 election winners.

Earlier this week, we talked with incoming Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah. Tonight: an interview with a Democrat headed to the U.S. Senate.

Judy Woodruff begins with some background.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Democrats had fewer reasons to smile than Republicans on election night, but Delaware’s Chris Coons was one of them.

CHRIS COONS (D-Del.), senator-elect: And, so, tonight, I pledge to you, to all the working families across Delaware, that I will work tirelessly to get our state and our nation back on track.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Coons, the New Castle County executive, won the Senate race by 16 points over Republican Christine O’Donnell, a Tea Party sensation.

Coons, 47, was a Republican himself as a young man, but switched parties in college, went on to earn degrees in both law and divinity from Yale, worked with the poor, and practiced law, before jumping into politics.

Early on in the campaign, Coons was given little chance, since the prohibitive favorite for the Republican nomination was popular Delaware Congressman and former Governor Mike Castle. But the Tea Party-backed O’Donnell shocked the political establishment by upsetting Castle in the fall GOP primary and transforming Coons into the front-runner.

O’Donnell was undone in part by her colorful outspoken past, including a remark on a 1990s TV show that she had dabbled in witchcraft, a point she magnified in this TV ad.

CHRISTINE O’DONNELL (R-Del.), former senatorial candidate: I’m not a witch. I’m nothing you have heard. I’m you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Coons, meanwhile, was buoyed by national Democrats, getting joint visits from President Obama and Vice President Biden, who held this Senate seat for 36 years.

U.S. VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: This guy has a backbone like a ramrod. I kid him, he’s got a brain bigger than his skull, and he’s got a heart to match both.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Since the Delaware contest was a special election to fill the remaining four years of Biden’s term, Coons will take his Senate seat next week, two months ahead of most freshmen.

And I’m joined by Democratic senator-elect Chris Coons. He is in Wilmington. Thank you for joining us. And congratulations.

CHRIS COONS: Thank you, Judy. I’m excited to be on. I appreciate the chance to be with you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, forgive me for starting out with this, but you were originally considered a real long shot here, not only because you were the, I guess, second choice of your own party, the Democrats, because everybody expected Vice President Biden’s son to run, but also because Mike Castle, the former governor, the congressman, was expected to — to blow you away.

Now, you did win, but are you the accidental senator?

CHRIS COONS: Well, Judy, I think I worked very hard in my campaign.

Obviously, my opponent changed on September 14 with the outcome of the Republican primary, but the issues that I focused on from back in January, when I first considered getting into this campaign, didn’t change up until Election Day.

I listened. I worked hard. I went up and down the state. I connected with voters. And I ran a campaign that really focused on their concerns, on getting people back to work, on fixing our economy, on helping recreate manufacturing jobs, and on tackling the deficit and debt.

And I was confident I had a strong chance against Congressman Castle, someone I have known 30 years and who I respect. But, again, in the general election, I had a quite different type of opponent. And I’m pleased with the outcome.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of the economy, one of the first things you’re going to be asked to vote on when you take your seat is whether to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, as well as for the middle class.

Do you think they should be extended for everyone, including the wealthy?

CHRIS COONS: Well, Judy, I think we should extend tax relief for the vast majority of Americans, for the 98 percent of folks who earn less than $250,000 a year. And I think it’s important for us to come to a bipartisan resolution of this question.

I have said in the campaign — and I intend to move in this direction as senator — that I’m willing to compromise on extending those income tax cuts for a number of years to higher-income individuals, if we can also get an agreement that extends other tax relief or other tax cuts that I’m convinced have a real impact on job creation.

I have talked a lot about the research and development tax credit, about expanded tax credits for manufacturing, and about some of the other tax fixes that are also on the table for expiration at the end of this year.

I think we need to look hard at all of them as a group, because every extension of a tax cut will add to our deficit and add to our debt.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned…

CHRIS COONS: The best way to fix our deficit is to grow new jobs. And I’m looking for information about how we can best accomplish that with tax incentives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned — you used the word compromise. There’s been a lot of talk in Washington about whether President Obama should move to the center, should compromise, to get some agreement with Republicans. Do you think that’s a good thing for him to do?

CHRIS COONS: I think we’re going to have to find bipartisan solutions to a number of the big issues facing our country.

And there’s no issue bigger than how to get the economy back on track. I heard from folks all up and down Delaware over the last nine months that they were tired of the partisan bickering, the squabbling, and, in their view, Congress just wasn’t working, wasn’t focused on real solutions.

There are matters of principle where I really don’t think we’re going to be able to find middle ground or compromise. But, on things like how do we get the economy moving again and how do we tackle the deficit and debt, we’re all going to have to be willing to make compromises in order to solve the real problems that the voters hired us to tackle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you mentioned the debt. And, just yesterday, the leaders of the presidentially appointed commission to look at the fiscal crisis came out with their own recommendations. Some of them are pretty dramatic.

And they include things like eliminating or limiting the mortgage deduction for — for the — or, rather, the interest paid on home mortgages as a tax deduction. Is that something you could support?

CHRIS COONS: Judy, I think we’re going to have to let all options be on the table in tackling a historically high deficit — it’s over $1.3 trillion for this year — and a staggering amount of national debt. It’s on track to hit $15 trillion in another year.

I think there’s a number of proposals in that draft report, which I haven’t had a chance to study or read, but that, as you dig into them, are less dramatic than they sound initially.

The proposal, for example, to raise the retirement age, if I understand correctly, is supposed to be phased in over 65 years. And the proposal to phase out the mortgage deduction was only for very expensive homes. Neither of those is attractive.

Of course, I don’t favor doing either of those things initially. But I think we have to keep all options on the table and be willing to cut some federal programs, to reduce some areas of spending, and to consider some revenue-raisers, if we’re going to be serious about tackling the deficit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And cut Social Security benefits for future retirees?

CHRIS COONS: I think we have to have all options on the table, Judy.

It is — it is — we are in such a dramatically bad situation financially as a country, in terms of the long-term impact of our deficit and debt, that I’m going seriously consider all the proposals coming out of that commission and work hard to try and find bipartisan resolution, which may mean that neither side, neither Republican or Democrat, can come to the table saying, absolutely A or B is permanently off the table.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another issue that’s going to come up before the Congress early next year, we are told, is whether to raise the ceiling on the debt. And almost everyone believes that that’s a vote that’s coming.

Is that something you feel you’re going to have to support?

CHRIS COONS: I may have to, because, frankly, I know we’re not going to solve the deficit and our ballooning debt problem between now and early next year.

We have got troops in the field in two different wars right now, today, on Veterans Day. The expense for that is significant. We have got an unresolved problem with health care costs and steadily increasing costs for unemployment insurance, for health care, for Social Security.

I do think we need to make progress. And, in order for me to be comfortable voting to raise the debt ceiling, I’m going to need to see that we’re making progress in tackling the deficit and the debt. But, right after job creation, I think that’s our top priority as a country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, one other issue that’s expected to come up in the lame-duck, or certainly in the new Congress, is whether to repeal don’t ask, don’t tell, the policy that discourages gays from serving in the military.

What is your position on that?

CHRIS COONS: I strongly support repealing that, both based on the recommendations we have heard from the secretary of defense and leaders in the armed forces, but also based on the experience of many of our allies.

I’m convinced don’t ask, don’t tell is discrimination, plain and simple, and doesn’t have any place in our modern armed forces.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Well, we are going to leave it there. Senator-elect Chris Coons, again, congratulations, and we look forward to seeing you in Washington.

CHRIS COONS: Thank you. Thanks for a chance to be with you, Judy.