Tavis: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is serving her first term in the U.S. Senate from New York, holding the seat previously held by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She is also a member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, an important committee these days, certainly given what’s happening around the world. She joins us tonight from Washington. Senator Gillibrand, an honor to have you on this program.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: Oh, it’s my privilege. Thank you for including me.
Tavis: I have a simple formulation. I happen to believe that budgets are moral documents – budgets are moral documents. Jay-Z, from New York, puts it this way: “You can say what you say, but you are what you are.” We find out what you really believe when you put these budgets forth, because again, I believe that budgets are moral documents. If I’m right about that, what does this budget say about President Obama’s priorities?
Gillibrand: Well, President Obama has tried to do the hard work of making tough choices in order to eventually balance the budget and reduce the deficit. Some of the priorities he’s made I agree with – cutting wasteful spending, making sure we don’t invest in military programs that aren’t being used currently – but some of his choices, I disagree with.
I was very concerned about the cuts to home heating assistance. On the East Coast we certainly need that in the cold winter. But all around the country, people get an energy investment in subsidy, and I think really leaving our seniors where they could be at risk for freezing in the winter in upstate New York is a very serious issue. So some of the priorities I agreed with, some of them, I don’t.
Tavis: Is the military spending being cut?
Gillibrand: Yes. The president did some very tough analysis of programs that the military is not currently using, different kinds of military capabilities that he’s discontinuing. It’ll save billions of dollars in the budget.
Tavis: How concerned, then, to your earlier point, should those persons who are hearing this debate about entitlement programs being under attack in this budget, how concerned – you gave one example, but more broadly, how concerned should everyday people be about cuts in this budget that impact their everyday lives?
Gillibrand: Well, the real concern is looking at the Republican budget. If you look at the numbers that the Republican leadership has put forward in their continuing resolution, it’s terrible. They are cutting early childhood education; they are cutting programs for Homeland Security to keep our cities and communities safe, they are cutting things that are really vital to America and to job growth.
They’re cutting a lot of the training programs, work force development. So a lot of the things that I think are really important for economic growth and for growing our way out of this tough economy, the Republicans are cutting very severely. So you started this program saying it is a question of being a moral document, and there is a very clear, bright-line difference between what President Obama’s advocating for versus what the Republican leadership in the House is putting forward.
Tavis: Is it really a bright line or is it really a blurry line? I ask that because when I asked a moment ago about the president’s budget, you immediately jumped on message to talk about how bad the Republicans’ budget is. I hear the point you’re trying to make, but is that your way of saying to me that the president’s budget goes after everyday people in some ways, but Republicans are worse, so that what we’re looking at here is then the better of two evils?
Gillibrand: No, because the president’s budget actually increases funding in certain areas. If you listen to his State of the Union address and what he wanted to do in his budget, he is creating a level of priorities for where investments need to happen. So the president’s spent a lot of his investment in education, particularly in STEM – science, technology, education, mathematics.
The president also wants to focus on entrepreneurialism, innovation, how we drive growth and job creation, so he’s investing a lot more in research and development in the sciences, in tax benefits for growing industries. So he is making choices in his budget, and some of the safety nets are important to me, like the home heating assistance is important, but he’s made other choices to increase investment in areas that he thinks are going to create jobs.
I think what the president’s trying to do is focus on the tough choices of having to cut spending, and we can cut spending. We can cut spending – wasteful spending, fraudulent spending, getting fat out of programs that are not necessary – and he’s done that.
But then we have to make choices about which investments are going to be the greatest bang for the buck. Which are the ones that are going to help create job creation? That’s why he’s really focused his attention on middle class tax cuts, on tax cuts for small businesses, on energy investments, on infrastructure investments, because he believes those investments will create long-term job growth, which is desperately what our economy needs.
Tavis: So the president takes on position, the Republicans, to your point, take an even tougher position on these kinds of important programs, social programs. So when they finally meet -
Gillibrand: Well, and even just as an example, in national security the president increased the amount of terror funding that we will receive in New York, which is a high priority. New York has been attacked 12 times since September 11th, so that’s something Senator Schumer and I and our whole delegation have been fighting for, to get more terror funding.
The president heard those requests and responded with a greater budget for terror funding, but however, the Republicans have slashed terror funding and have slashed a lot of the programs that keep our infrastructure safe, our transit safe, by the hundreds of millions of dollars.
So there was a choice made there, and I think the Republican choice is wrong and the president’s choice is right.
Tavis: So if the president’s making tough choices, to use your words, in this difficult recession, and in many ways, again, by your own example, some of the cuts that he has made are going to end up hurting everyday people, they’re going to hurt the weak working class, your argument is that the Republican budget is even worse.
So here’s my question: When they finally meet in the middle, wherever that middle is, tell me why I should not believe that so many Americans are still going to ultimately be hurt by this budget – maybe not as bad as the Republicans have offered, but at the end of the day I’m trying to figure out how the American people benefit, ultimately, from this budget.
Gillibrand: Well, I think the American people can benefit because President Obama is choosing to invest in economic growth. The number one concern in New York State today is jobs. People are worried because they are worried about economic insecurity because they’ve lost jobs, they’re looking for jobs, they need more hours.
So President Obama is trying to make the tough choices, cut where he can, but make the significant investments in job growth. That’s why the investments in education, the investments in opportunity and entrepreneurialism, innovation, small businesses – that’s why he’s made that a priority, because frankly, certainly in my state, and I think it’s true all across the country, the economy is the number one issue.
So he’s focusing on a pro-growth, pro-jobs agenda that will help the American people grow our way out of this tough economic climate that we’re in.
Tavis: Are there any issues – you’ve named one that personally bothers you – are there any issues that the Democratic caucus in your body, the Senate, are prepared to push back with regard to the White House on this budget?
Gillibrand: I think there’ll be a lot of issues. I think that for each senator there’s going to be certain issues that are most important to their constituencies that they will fight for. The Senate will produce its own budget. We will make a priority of what are the issues that we think are most important to be funded, where can we cut spending.
For example, cuts that I would like to see – I would like to stop the subsidies of oil companies. We give them $8 billion a year in subsidies for oil production when it’s one of the most profitable companies and industries in the world. So they don’t need our taxpayer subsidies.
We also can make cuts in various agriculture programs. Some of the biggest industry producers don’t need subsidies. We want to make sure we’re rewarding small farms, family farms, and really focusing on conservation. Those are choices that I want to make. Those are choices that also the president made.
He did some very smart work in reducing spending in various parts of agriculture that wasn’t producing jobs or was rewarding industries that frankly don’t need the taxpayer subsidies.
So in each of the titles of spending there are ways to cut spending, cut out the fat and then focus on the things you want to enhance. So for example, in President Obama’s budget he increased food stamps money. He increased the amount of money going to nutrition, which is really going to help our constituents.
Because a lot of families in this tough economy are suffering from homelessness, suffering from a lack of access to good, healthy foods, and meanwhile, a lot of our communities are food deserts, where there’s literally no access to fresh foods, fresh vegetables at an affordable price.
So President Obama made that choice in his budget to take money away from the large commodity crops and put it towards food stamps, and so those are the kinds of choices I think he made well.
A lot of people are just delving into this budget right now, it’s a very large document, but I’ve looked through a number of these titles and seen the choices he’s made, and he’s made the right choices. So I’m going to fight for similar choices in the Senate and then try to do a few things that are really important to New York that weren’t in the president’s budget.
Tavis: So finally, when the president offered a preface, a prelude to what this budget would look like in his State of the Union address, Democrats, Republicans sitting together that night in a show of unity and collegiality and civility, how contentious now are things going to get that the numbers, the budget is on the table?
Gillibrand: I think this is something that can be worked through. I understand that in the Senate everyone’s focused on the economy right now. I was the presiding officer over the Senate debate this morning. I heard a number of Republican senators come up and talk about the economy, Susan Collins talked about a lot of tax cuts for small businesses, the types of changes that I would like to see in New York as well.
So I think there’s great room to come together and to get the people’s business done. If the last election was about anything, Tavis, it was about the American people wanting their members of Congress to come to Washington and do the hard work of coming up with solutions – solutions that create economic growth and create jobs – and I think the Senate is very poised to do that well. I think we can lead on these issues. I think we can create an economic agenda that focuses on the middle class and small businesses.
Small businesses create 70 percent of all new jobs, so we want to make sure that we’re investing in small businesses, whether it’s issues of access to capital, making sure they can get loans so they can broaden their businesses and create jobs, or whether it’s tax policy, to give them tax credits and tax deductions.
There’s other certain priorities I have. For example, young veterans – 20 percent of our young vets are unemployed, the guys coming back, the men and women coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. I want to make sure that our businesses have tools to hire them, tax cuts to hire them. I want to make sure that veteran-owned businesses can have special help from the SBA.
We have so many opportunities also with women and minority-owned businesses. Women and minority-owned businesses are the fastest-growing sector within small businesses, so we want to continue to help cultivate them, because they can be part of a recovery effort.
So that’s what I’m going to try to be working on over the next year, because that’s where New Yorkers want my focus, on creating jobs. I think there is a willingness to work on a bipartisan basis to achieve that.
Tavis: Debate over the president’s budget is just now starting to heat up, and we’ll be talking about it in the coming days and weeks, I suspect. On this program tonight we’re pleased to have had New York’s Democratic senator, Kirsten Gillibrand. Senator, thanks for your time. Good to have you on.
Gillibrand: Thank you.
Tavis: Up next, R&B superstar Ne-Yo – stay with us.
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