Sen. Baldwin: Progress on Debt, Immigration Means Congress Is Moving Forward

Judy Woodruff talks with newly elected Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who is also the first openly gay person to serve in the Senate. Sen. Baldwin and Judy discuss immigration reform, gun control and the record number of women in the Senate.

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    Next, we turn to politics.

    Judy Woodruff has another in our conversations with newly elected members of the U.S. Senate.


    Democrat Tammy Baldwin won a hotly contested race in the battleground state of Wisconsin, defeating former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson with 51 percent of the vote.

    The 50-year-old Baldwin previously served seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, and before that was a member of the Wisconsin state assembly. An attorney by trade, she replaces Democrat Herb Kohl, who retired. Baldwin is both the first openly gay person to serve in the Senate and the first woman elected to the chamber from Wisconsin.

    Sen. Baldwin joins us now from Capitol Hill.

    Congratulations, Senator. And, first off, how are you finding the Senate different from the House?


    Well, thank you, Judy.

    There's a lot to get adjusted to, even though the move has only been a few hundred yards. And I am really enjoying it. We're putting together an extraordinary team on behalf of the state, but one of the biggest differences is fighting for an entire state, not just a small region within the state. And that is a tremendous honor.


    Well, Senator, let me ask you first about government spending.

    You are on the Budget Committee. And it appears at this point that Republican congressional leaders are determined to let that so-called sequester, across-the-board spending cuts, domestic and defense, go forward in the — and it would be taking place over the next few years, but would go ahead and do that in the coming weeks.

    But on a day like today, with downturn in the economy news at — for this — this quarter, the fact that defense cuts have already had an effect on the economy, where do you come down? Do you think this is going to get resolved?


    Well, I certainly hope that we do.

    And one of the things that's been encouraging is the headway made on averting the debt crisis from occurring, as it did a couple of summers ago, where our credit rating was downgraded and a crisis ensued. It was a manufactured crisis.

    So the fact that there's been some progress on that does mean to me that we can come together across the party aisle, avoid these political games and these manufactured crises and move forward.

    Now, I can't predict exactly what's going to happen with the sequester, but I think what's up to us — and I'm thrilled to be a member of the Senate Budget Committee — is that we put a balanced plan together, that we recognize the importance of tackling the deficit and debt, but that we also understand one of the key strategies to move out of it is growth, jobs, getting our economy back on track. And so I think we need to put a balanced plan forward.


    Immigration reform, Senator, you have said that you believe that the bipartisan — the plan that was put forward by a bipartisan group of Senators, you called it a step forward in the right direction.

    But we know there's some key differences between that and what President Obama wants. For example, the president is rejecting the idea of requiring improved border security, requiring a new tracking system to be in place before he lets people living in this country now illegally apply for citizenship. Where do you come down on that?


    Well, I have to take a moment and really applaud what we have seen in terms of an agreed-upon statement of key principles for immigration reform that emerged from the Senate on a bipartisan basis.

    We haven't seen this for quite some time. So I think it's worth taking a moment to recognize that and build upon that, rather than immediately going to our differences. Certainly, this is going to be a complicated and time-consuming debate that I think will play out over the next several months. But I think we're off to a good start.

    And the key principles on which there is agreement are very encouraging to me. In the Senate, it focuses a lot on border security, on a fair, but tough path to citizenship, path to documentation. And I think those are all very important.

    These issues are important to all of our states also. And, certainly, in Wisconsin, we have a real stake in seeing this move forward in a positive way.


    In general, though, do you think border security should come before those folks who are in the country illegally should be allowed to apply for citizenship?


    You know, I think one of the reasons why we have been for comprehensive immigration reform for so many years is that it needs to come together.

    If you do it piecemeal, if you say this must come first before that, you lose the coalition of bipartisan support necessary to actually get this across the finish line. We have seen that happen way too many times before. So I do hope we can move all of this forward together.


    One question about gun control. Do you believe that an assault weapons ban can pass the Senate today?


    You know, when I look at what Vice President Biden and President Obama put together in terms of an array of opportunities for us to crack down on gun violence in these mass killings.

    I start again with the things that I think we can win bipartisan support for, broad support from citizens across this country who are gun owners and not gun owners alike. And so I think there's a lot we can do to pursue this issue, the universal background check being one of the first that I would talk about.

    On the issue of a particular weapons ban, I do think that, obviously, it has been done before. And I do think if we take the care to debate this properly and do it right, perhaps something can move forward, obviously very tricky politically.


    Senator, women in the Senate, there are now 20, more than there have ever been before. Do you think that fact will change the work that the Senate can get done, the kind of legislation that's passed?


    You know, I do see women in politics having a different approach to issues. And I think that that's going to work well. This record number of 20 is very exciting.

    We had our first dinner last night. And I got a chance really to talk with my new colleagues about our approach, our process and how we go about tackling problems and solving problems. I think, as we work together, it's going to be a very exciting opportunity. And I have always believed that when our legislative bodies look like a cross-section of America, we're better governed. And we're getting there.

    We haven't gotten far enough, but we're getting there.


    And, finally, Senator, President Obama in his inaugural address was the first president to advocate openly for gay rights. He said our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.

    How do you see that being translated into reality in the coming few years?


    You know, I was very struck with his references.

    And it wasn't just that, but his linkage of all of our struggles for full equality, from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall. So, wrapping one movement into the fabric of other movements for full equality was very important, very touching.

    I think that it was a very important inclusion, very important statement about what he wants to do as a leader moving forward, but also a welcome call to all of us who serve in legislative branches and others that now is the time. Now is the time to take additional steps.


    Well, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, thank you for joining us. And, again, congratulations.


    Thank you, Judy.


    And we want to remind you, in recent weeks, we have also talked with Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas, Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Deb Fischer of Nebraska, and Democrats Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Tim Kaine of Virginia, as well as independent Angus King of Maine. You can find those interviews on our website.