After seven terms as a progressive Wisconsin congresswoman, Tammy Baldwin joined the Senate in January – becoming the body’s first openly gay member after beating a popular ex-governor who accused her of voting against “honoring the victims of 9/11.” In a Friday interview, she aired her fear of a multi-week shutdown, shared optimism about getting a landmark anti-discrimination bill through the Senate, and declared her opposition to “chained CPI” - a Social Security cut favored by the president. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.
Why is this shutdown happening now?
The reason for the shutdown is that the Speaker of the House of Representatives refuses to put before the House a funding resolution that the Senate sent over last Friday, which would pass, I believe, with bipartisan support if he were to put it up for a vote.
Do you expect that to happen in the near future?
I’m worried...We have another deadline looming: the October 17 deadline for needing to lift the debt ceiling...I fear that some of the Tea Party-inspired members of the House want to wait until that deadline comes to exact greater leverage for their political agenda.
Should Democrats make any concessions in order to get Republicans to re-open the government or raise the debt ceiling?
No. The basic and most central part of our jobs as elected representatives of the people is to keep the government running and to make sure that the United States of America pays its bills on time. There is a lot that we should be discussing...but not in this context of shutdowns and threatened default.
There was a press conference yesterday where twenty-some members of Congress were stating their opposition to “chained CPI.” Is that something you support or oppose?
I would oppose linking Social Security benefits to the chained CPI. I view Social Security as an earned retirement benefit that, for those who have worked hard their whole lives, contributes to their economic security in their retirement years...And at a time when our middle class is taking it on the chin and struggling, this is not prudent policy.
With Republicans at least reportedly looking for some kind of “Grand Bargain,” are you concerned that again the president will pursue chained CPI or some kind of other cuts to entitlement programs?
I have no idea what likelihood there is that we will be talking again about a "Grand Bargain." But when that comes up, I want to take a step back and say that not so long ago there were broad, bipartisan agreements on what we needed to do to attack out debt and our deficit, and get on a sustainable budgetary footing...We’ve come a long way towards those goals with, if memory serves me correctly, about $2.6 trillion in spending cuts and very modest revenue increases.
And if there were some kind of compromise put forward that included chained CPI along with things that you might want, is that something you would oppose?
Our immediate task is to reopen the government and to assure that the United States of America is able to meet its debt obligations come mid-month. I have the honor of having worked on the Budget Committee and think that there is a sensible process for handling these things, and we really ought to go back to that. The Senate passed a budget that did not contemplate making any sort of changes to Social Security benefits. And it really focused on growing the middle class, creating jobs, and reducing the deficit through targeted spending cuts on the discretionary side. I think we can do that. And chained CPI, there’s no need for it to be on the table.
Keith Ellison was arguing that at this point what the Democrats are pushing is a number that came from the Republicans in terms of overall spending. In the big picture, does that suggest that Republicans have already won in this fight over the size of the government?
I think that [what] the Senate continuing resolution number of 986 billion suggests is that folks are more than willing to negotiate, and any suggestion to the contrary doesn’t carry any weight... When a Tea Party faction of the House says that folks aren’t willing to negotiate, that’s ludicrous. It doesn’t pass the laugh test.
Republicans have tried to start a drumbeat about the piecemeal CRs that they passed. Should the Senate take any of those up?
No. Sort of cherry-picking particular popular programs is a tactic that they are using. But again, the fundamental responsibility here for members of Congress is to keep the government open and functioning to make sure that the United States of America pays its bills. And this is more game-playing...Whether they send us back something that says they want to defund Obamacare, or repeal it, or delay it, or this piecemeal approach, it is just politics right now. And they need to get down to governing.
You’ve talked about the importance of the U.S. government being an equal opportunity employer. Should the president sign an executive order to ban government contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers?
I would encourage him to do so, and I have in the past expressed to the president my support of such an option.
Why do you think it hasn’t happened at this point?
I do not know.
Not only are you the first out LGBT senator, but it reportedly was barely an issue in your election campaign in Wisconsin. On the other hand, it’s still legal in most states to fire people for being gay. How do you assess the pace of progress towards LGBT equality?
I think that the marriage equality battle is one example of rapid progress in recent years...But we’ve also seen reflected in polling really rapid change of opinion throughout the United States, with more and more Americans embracing the principle of marriage equality. I think the same is true in terms of public opinion on legislation like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Do you believe ENDA will pass the Senate in this term?
I’m very hopeful that it will, and as I speak to my colleagues about soliciting their support, I’m heartened by the conversations I’m having.
So what happens after ENDA passes the Senate?
It sends a strong signal about equality, and we hope that the House will pay attention to that. I don’t see any signs unfortunately from the House that the leadership is inclined to move the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. But that said, it draws the nation’s focus to the fact that this discrimination is still allowed in many jurisdictions, and is one further step towards ultimate passage.
Over the many Congresses in which ENDA has been introduced, progressives have disagreed about what exception if any there should be for “religious employers.” What’s the right approach?
Legislating is the art of compromise, and so the version that was introduced in the US Senate has fairly – let’s say a large religious exemption. If I were to have a magic wand, I probably would use the same language that applies to race and gender discrimination. But that wasn’t the language that was included in this draft.
You spent a long time in the House Progressive Caucus. How do you compare the leverage of the Left within the Democratic Party to the leverage the Right has been showing within the Republican Party?
I think it has to do with the view that one has on the responsibility to govern. And I think when we see Tea Party members of the House willing to close, to shutter the government, and Tea Party members of the House who have articulated that they would allow the government to default on its debts, that you have a level of extremism that is unparalleled by any other faction in either house.
And if in fact the Congress does not raise the debt ceiling, then should the president take the position that he has the authority to continue paying the bills anyway?
I am not a legal scholar on that particular point. But I remember that the White House concluded the last time that they did not have that authority and I have no reason to suspect that they have rethought that. I also am reminded of Ronald Reagan...reminding the congress that the United States had never defaulted, and reminding how much of the world looks towards the full faith and credit of the United States, and simply calling on Congress to do their job.
So should people be panicking about the debt ceiling then? And if not now, when?
Well, certainly there is widespread worry already. I wouldn’t describe it as panic, but whether it’s the business community, the financial services sector, or just citizens around the United States, they’re voicing strong worries about the direction this Tea Party’s action is going in and urging caution. And fortunately in addition to all of the Democrats who would refuse to ever go down this path, we have other moderate-minded members who are saying we won’t let that happen either. And then just like the government shutdown, it comes down to whether Speaker Boehner lets the House vote.
Do you think we’re going to see changes to the filibuster? Should we?
I expect that the issue will come up again when we find ourselves being blocked from advancing things of consequence, just as we did a few months back...It was resolved in this case through bipartisan discussion, and a wish on all parts to be able to avoid it and still constructively move forward with these appointments. I expect that there’ll be confrontations like that in the future if these scenarios play out again. And I suspect they will.
With ACA enrollment beginning now, what have you been hearing from constituents about their experience or perceptions?
There’s very, very significant interest in Wisconsin...There’s been media coverage of the interest as well as media coverage of folks who have been very pleasantly surprised by the premium costs that they have discovered in the marketplace...Certainly at this time when, again, the Tea Party folks in both houses are continuing to attack the Affordable Care Act in their rhetoric, I have heard from constituents who are repeating that rhetoric and concerned. So I’m hearing a full spectrum. But by and large, as of October 1, great anticipation in my state about finally having some options for folks who haven’t had any before.
What is the rhetoric that you’re hearing back from people?
You’ll hear somebody say, “this is going to be a trainwreck.” And that’s certainly something that when I’ve been presiding in the Senate, I’ve heard from a number of colleagues. I’ve heard a lot of folks suggesting that members of Congress do not have to participate in the marketplace, even though clearly they do.
How do you respond?
Well it’s clear when somebody uses language like “trainwreck” that they’re repeating somebody else’s words. And I ask if they can get into more specifics about what their concerns are, so I can address them. And oftentimes that’s not forthcoming. But I certainly appreciate hearing from all of my constituents.
You told a local paper that you wanted to change but not repeal the ACA’s medical device tax. I talked to an economist concerned that repeal could be paid for by delaying or pulling back on ACA benefits. What’s your view of what should happen?
I don’t support outright repeal, but do believe that it needs modifications. In particular, one of my concerns is that the tax is on gross proceeds, not net proceeds. And in a state like Wisconsin, when you have small startups that are not yet profitable but have the promise of a breakthrough product for example, or something that can have a significant impact to benefit people’s health, you don’t want a tax on gross proceeds. You want a tax on profits.
Do you want that to be done in a way that’s revenue-neutral?
I think that it would depend upon other pay-fors. Obviously we need to make sure that the Affordable Care Act is paid for. So we have to look at our options.
Are there other pay-fors you have in mind?
I still think that there is a lot of savings that could accrue if the federal government were to bargain with pharmaceutical companies for more affordable prescription drugs...That has been forbidden since the Medicare Modernization Act. So that would certainly be something I would put on the table.