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“President Barack Obama:” I thought that people came to it with a spirit of trying to work together and I think it’s a good start as we move forward. The American people did not vote for gridlock. They didn’t vote for unyielding partisanship. They’re demanding cooperation and they’re demanding progress, and they’ll hold all of us – and I mean all of us – accountable for it.
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Tavis: President Obama yesterday, following his much-anticipated meeting with leaders from both parties at the White House. Among those attending that meeting was Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. He is the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the U.S. Senate and joins us tonight from Capitol Hill. Senator Durbin, good to have you back on this program, sir.
Senator Dick Durbin: Thank you. Nice to be with you.
Tavis: Your take-away from the meeting?
Durbin: It was a good meeting, and for those of us who’ve been lucky enough to be in meetings like this, it was a little extraordinary. We had a formal meeting in what’s known as the Roosevelt Room in the White House. It had all the principles involved, the leaders from the administration as well as from Congress, with our staff.
Then after that the president stood up and said, “Well, I’d like to ask the members of Congress to join me and the vice president in a small room here,” and we went off to the small dining room off the Oval Office – a much more intimate and close setting – where the conversation continued.
It was clearly an effort by the president to reach out in a very personal way to the leadership in Congress and to engage all of us in trying to work together.
Tavis: Breaking bread together is one thing; passing bills together is quite another, and one gets the sense, if one believes what one reads, that Republicans are interested in blocking a significant number of bills except for a couple they might want to compromise on. So what happens when it gets to bill-making time beyond sharing the bread?
Durbin: Well, Tavis, the day afterwards, unfortunately, the Republican Senate leadership issued a letter signed by 42 Republican senators which basically said stop, don’t try to do anything in the Senate until we get the tax cuts resolved, and Senator Kyle, who is my counterpart on the Republican side basically has said don’t try to bring up any other issues. We’re going to hold everything hostage until we get this done.
Now, we all agree it has to be done, but to think that the Senate is going to sit here and do nothing while the negotiations are under way seems like a colossal waste of time.
Tavis: So what’s going to happen, then?
Durbin: Well, the senators on the Republican side have it within their power to block us, to initiate filibusters. We’ve seen them so many times, over and over again. I hope they have a change of heart. I hope the negotiations produce something we can vote on soon.
Tavis: What’s going to happen on this tax cut issue?
Durbin: I’m not sure. I know my position – the basic position on the Democratic side – we need to extend the tax cuts for working families. Some 98 percent of Americans are not millionaires. Those folks need some assurance in their lives that the tax cuts they enjoy this year will be around next year. It’s a great boost to our economy for that money to be in their pockets and spent by these families. I think that’s an important step forward, I stand for that.
I also think we need to extend unemployment benefits. The number one, single most effective thing to pump money into the economy, to help those who’ve lost their job through no fault of their own and are struggling to pay for the basics.
I think those are two things we ought to move on quickly. They’re positions that the president shares.
Tavis: Did the Senate and the White House, for that matter, spend too much time over the last year and a half bailing out Wall Street, bailing out the auto industry and other industries and not spending enough attention and focus on the issue of jobs, which seemed to be the issue that got everybody out to vote in November?
Durbin: Remember, the first thing the president did was a stimulus bill – $787 billion – in an effort to try to turn around what looked like a frightening global depression. It worked, it stopped the decline. Unfortunately we haven’t really seen liftoff since. We’ve been moving in the right direction, creating more private sector jobs, but not at a pace that most of us want to see, and I think that’s primarily the reason we did so poorly in the November 2nd election.
Yes, we did other things as well – an effort, for example, to make sure Wall Street didn’t take us down that path again that led to this recession, an effort to provide credit for small businesses across this country.
So it isn’t as if we didn’t address those issues; we did. The results were not as robust as we wanted them to be. We’re trying to find new ways to work together, and I think the lesson from the election is that people want to see this economy turn around, people back to work as soon as possible.
Tavis: Some would argue, Senator, that the results have not been robust enough because the effort, quite frankly, was not robust enough. Put another way, there are any number of economists – Joseph Stiglitz comes to mind, Paul Krugman comes to mind, both Nobel laureates, of course, and others who suggest that that stimulus was not big enough in the first place and so you don’t have a robust enough turnaround because the effort was not robust enough in the first place.
Durbin: I agree completely, and if you’ll remember, it went over three Republican Senate votes to pass it in the United States Senate, the first thing the president offered, we had to cut the amount of money that was going into the stimulus package. Many of us thought we were moving in the wrong direction – let’s do something big and bold that will have an impact on the economy quickly.
But unfortunately, we weren’t able to. To win over three Republican votes, we had to reduce the size of this package. I think that money invested at that time in a larger amount would have had a much more positive impact.
Tavis: Show me again, or tell me again, in terms of actual legislation coming from the Democratic Party, the argument that you can make now that the focus after November is going to be on lifting up the weak working class, legislation aimed at everyday people. Talk to me.
Durbin: Well, I can tell you several things that I think need to be done. If we’re going to have tax cuts, let’s focus on those in lower and middle income groups. Make sure that they get the breaks they need to continue to try to provide for their families.
Secondly, when it comes to some of the tax provisions, the earned income tax credit, the childcare tax credit, the make work pay tax credit – all of these are designed to reward working families to give them more spending power to cope with a very difficult and challenging economy.
I think the unemployment benefit’s the same way. Today, December 1st, is the first day that we’ve cut off unemployment benefits. I think that’s a terrible decision. We should restore them quickly. Some two million Americans across the United States will lose their unemployment benefits before Christmas – happy holidays.
The fact is, these are people who are struggling to find work. Many of them will be receiving unemployment checks, up until now, of about $300 a week. You don’t get rich or live in luxury at $300 a week, but it’s enough, maybe, to pay for the utility bills and keep your family together while you search for a job.
So let’s focus on helping the unemployed, finding the retraining and education funds they need, providing the tax code provisions that give people a helping hand in this tough economy.
Tavis: I think most Americans agree, although I’ve not done a scientific poll, but I think most of us would probably agree, Senator – I’m sure you do as well – that deficit reduction is a real issue. The question is when the time for that conversation has come, and whether or not, given the condition of the economy, we ought to change our focus to talking about deficit reduction versus stimulating this economy.
So everybody knows now this commission has come out with their report about what ought to be done with regard to deficit reduction, so I’m asking two questions. One, your take on that report, just a top-line take on it, and your take, more expressly, on whether or not this conversation in Washington is going to shift at the wrong time.
Durbin: This is a reality. The deficit faces us. We borrow 40 cents out of every dollar that we spend. We borrow most of it from countries like China. They have become major creditors of the United States and have more power over our economy than we want them too. So dealing with this is not only the right thing economically, it’s certainly right from a moral viewpoint.
We can’t leave this debt to our kids and expect them to shoulder that responsibility, but the reality of the situation is if we hit the brakes now on spending and stimulus, right in the midst of a recovery economy, we could plunge this economy back into recession, with even higher unemployment.
So the deficit commission that I serve on debating this week has said let’s not do anything to really reduce the spending dramatically until we are clearly through the recession. I think that’s a sensible approach. We’ve got to keep a foot on the accelerator, moving forward until more people get back to work. That, incidentally, is a good way to cure part of the deficit that we face.
More people working and paying taxes reduces government expenditures and helps us move a little closer to balance.
Tavis: On this issue and others we know, of course, Republicans took over the House, Democrats still have a slight majority in the Senate. But I’m curious as to your take on how wounded Democrats are in the Senate in your home state of Illinois. The seat that once belonged to Barack Obama went to Republicans, so how wounded are Democrats in the Senate as we speak?
Durbin: We’ve gone from 59 votes to 53, which is substantial in the Senate where 60 votes are needed for the most controversial measures. So it’s going to be tougher. They have to be bipartisan; we have to be bipartisan in our effort to get big things done in this new Congress.
I can tell you there’s a spirit, though, at least in the Senate, and I think that’s true among Democrats in the House, that we need to continue to work together and with the president to move this country forward. I hope we can do it on a bipartisan basis. I hope we don’t face this string of filibusters that we’ve seen over the last several years that really has ground the Senate to a halt many times when we should have been producing things.
Tavis: I’m going to – I’m like my friend, the late, great, Tim Russert – I’m going to warn you in advance that I’m going to pull this tape out, the answer to the question you’re about to give me now, I’m going to pull this tape out in two years, so I want to warn you up front that you will see yourself again on this program in the future.
Here’s the question: How should the American people judge Democrats in Washington between now and 2012? We know two years from now, big presidential election. What should we judge you on in 2012 as to whether or not we return more of you or fewer of you to the House and the Senate?
Durbin: Which party offers the best prospects for building the American economy so that we can grow this economy, creating jobs and prosperity, not just for those at the top, but for everybody.
I think that’s going to be the bottom line question, and I think it’s an important one. It’s not just a matter of growing the economy. We’ve got to make certain that we’re moving forward with the kind of job that can sustain a family and help them to grow and be an important part of the community.
My fear is we seem to be falling behind. Our workers are more productive; their wages don’t reflect it. Our party feels that we need to have fair compensation, living wage, good benefits and decent treatment of workers, and that we can do that and still be competitive on a global basis.
Tavis: The number two man in the U.S. Senate from Illinois – Senator Dick Durbin. Senator, thank you, as always, for sharing your insights. Good to have you on this program.
Durbin: Thanks, Tavis.
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