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Lawmakers returned to Capitol Hill this week and immediately jumped into a debate about extending benefits for the unemployed. While a measure cleared a big hurdle on Tuesday, the debate is far from over — as are debates about a number of critical issues related to the economy and national security. We explore the issues likely to shape the next few months on Capitol Hill with Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine.
- Tim Kaine Member, U.S. Senate (D-Va.); Former Governor of Virginia; Former Chairman, Democratic National Committee
MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Marc Fisher sitting in for Kojo. Later in the broadcast, what you eat and what you tweet, how social media are changing our relationships with food at home and at restaurants.
MR. MARC FISHERBut first a new year begins on Capitol Hill, lawmakers returning to Washington this week, and they immediately dove back into a debate about extending benefits for the long-term unemployed. But Congress remains mired in partisan gridlock, and with elections looming, there's little optimism about making any progress this year on a wide range of issues, from immigration to gun violence.
MR. MARC FISHERJoining us to explore his priorities for the legislative year ahead and talk about some of the big issues facing Virginia and the nation is Sen. Tim Kaine, a member -- a Democrat from Virginia, former governor of Virginia. And, Senator, welcome to the program. Millions of people have lost access to long-term unemployment benefits at the end of this past year. And Democrats made a proven -- an extension of those benefits their top immediate priority of 2014. That cleared a big hurdle with a vote in your chamber yesterday. What happens next? And what are you expectations for that process?
SEN. TIM KAINEWell, it was a really good news story, and, frankly, a lot of us were surprised. We thought we might fall a vote or two short. But the fact that a number of Republicans joined us to move to proceed, at least to get on the bill and have a debate over the course of the next couple days is a good sign. We've got to make our case about why this extension is good both for the individuals who have been affected by this very, very difficult economic time, but also good for the economy.
SEN. TIM KAINEAnd, you know, I would say, in terms of issues that we're going to be tackling this year, strengthening the economy across the board for everybody, beginning with this unemployment insurance extension, moving on to minimum wage, and then looking at other issues that we can do to really shore up the middle class as our economic recovery starts to, you know, achieve some momentum. These are the issues that I think are really going to dominate in 2014.
FISHERBut, Senator, it is an election year, and there are already people on both sides of the aisle saying, well, it's election year. Maybe given how little got done this past year, a record-low in terms of number of bills passed, it's unlikely that anything's going to happen of great significance this year in the waning years of a second-term presidency and, you know, more and more voices of people leaving Congress, people leaving the administration saying that Washington doesn't work anymore. How do you deal on a day-to-day basis with this overarching sense of dysfunction?
KAINEWell, I mean, look, I think there's evidence -- there's reason to be skeptical, but -- just to give you an example, I just finished my first year in the Senate. I got elected. The Senate had not done a budget in four years. I got put on the Budget Committee. I agitated from the very day I was here. We got to start doing budgets again.
KAINEAnd we did get a budget deal at year-end between the House and the Senate, first real budget conference compromise in a divided Congress since 1986. We got that done in a way that I think you're seeing some economic signs that are actually starting to be pretty positive because of that budget deal and providing some certainty to the private sector about what's going to happen not just for the next year but for the next two years.
KAINEIn the Senate, we got an immigration bill passed, which was historic. We, you know, did -- we got (word?) to pass in the Senate, which is historic. A number of things happened last year in the Senate that give me reason not for pessimism, but, while it's appropriate to have some skepticism, I remain optimistic every day. You're right that in an election year, the 2014, that does color everything. It changes everything.
KAINEBut, remember, anybody who's here who's going to be facing their constituents in 2014 in a campaign, they would much rather be facing them with some things to talk about here's what we got done rather than here's what we didn't get done. And so there are some...
FISHERUnless there are some...
KAINE...there's some electoral motivations for both sides to find some achievable wins that we can together make happen. And may not be a lot of them, but both sides need to be able to look at their electorate in 2014 and say we got some things done.
FISHERDo you think that's really the case across the board with your colleagues, particularly over on the House side, or aren't there a good number who will define themselves to their electorates as we're the ones who stood up against things happening that we think are bad, in other words?
KAINEI think, look, the way you point it out is a little bit accurate. And in the Senate, since we all get elected statewide, that tends to, you know, kind of have a moderating effect both on who gets elected but then also on the kinds of things we do once here. I don't know of a single Senate colleague who can comfortably go into a re-election campaign, Democratic or Republican, on the grounds of here's what we didn't get done.
KAINEThey've got to go in on the grounds of here's what we worked together to produce. In the House, because of the gerrymandering effect of redistricting, sometimes it can skew seats both harder Democratic or harder Republican, but even then, I mean -- and I'll be blunt. The only state I really know is Virginia, but Virginians are a pretty good bellwether for a national electorate. If you look at results of presidential elections recently, the Virginia margin tends to track the national margin pretty closely.
KAINEVirginians want folks who have a record of accomplishment. Just being able to stand up and say, you know, I blocked X, I blocked Y, I blocked Z, that's usually not enough for a Virginia voter. Maybe they want you to block some things they don't like, but they usually want you to also -- point out areas where you were part of a solutions crew, a constructer rather than deconstructive crew.
KAINEAnd so, again, while the election year will kind of create its own center of gravity and effect many things this year, anybody who's running for election is going to want to look their citizens in the eye and talk to them about things that were accomplished because they were here in this building. And I think that does create some opportunity for successes in a few areas -- a few important areas.
FISHERWe're talking with Sen. Tim Kaine from Virginia. You can join that conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850. Or email us at kojo--K-O-J-Oemail@example.com. You can also send a tweet to @kojoshow. And, Senator, you mention the budget compromise that was forged at the end of last year.
FISHERYou had expressed some serious concerns about some of the cuts it included, and I'm specifically referring to cuts that affect military and federal employees. Are there course corrections that you think are realistic and worth pursuing? And is this conversation going to change at some point in terms of the sacrifices that federal employees are being asked to make?
KAINEYeah. Great question, and, you know, I think it's an example, first, of a general phenomenon. And then I'm going to answer it specifically. You get a compromise. It's truly that. I mean, you know, the reason that there hadn't been budgets in previous years is that folks weren't willing to compromise off their positions to work together to find a common ground result.
KAINEWhen you do find that common ground result between a Senate Democratic budget under Chairwoman Patty Murray and a House Republican budget under Chairman Paul Ryan, there were aspects of the ultimate compromise that were not in the Senate budget that I voted for and helped to work on, that I did not support, and there were things that I wanted in the ultimate compromise that weren't in there.
KAINESo -- and everybody around that conference table -- Democratic, Republican, House, Senate -- would say exactly the same thing. That's the essence of compromise, and we can't be afraid to do it. In fact, we have to do it. The piece that was, in fact, the toughest piece was the adjustments to military retirees cost of living increases. That was not in the Senate budget.
KAINEWe -- I would have vastly preferred to vote for an ultimate budget compromise that didn't contain that. However, the particular adjustment which would take, for military retirees during what we would consider sort of the working years of their life, up to age 62, they would get the pension, they would get the COLA, but the COLA would be reduced by 1 percent until age 62. And then they'd be caught up.
KAINEThat particular adjustment doesn't kick in till 2015. So we knew, as we were acting on the budget at the end of 2013, that if we voted for the budget to find a budget deal for the first time in five years to give the American economy some certainty, we could come back and actually make an adjustment of that before it took effect.
KAINEAnd both in the Armed Services Committee and in the Budget Committee, there's now good bipartisan discussions about how to do it. I am the co-sponsor of one fixed bill with Sen. Warner. There are some others out on the table. I think we will find a resolution to that.
FISHEROne of the -- we talked earlier about the sense of the Party of No and the question of whether there's any reason to be optimistic about anything of significance happening in Congress this year. And there are voices, particularly from the right, who are saying that the agenda for this year is more no to ObamaCare, no, no, no. And certainly at the state level in Virginia, there's going to be a major face-off over the expansion of Medicaid under ObamaCare.
FISHERFirst, in Washington, do you think that the Republicans will be successful in keeping ObamaCare at the center of the national conversation? And how does that -- does that get resolved? Or are there going to be a series of small battles, such as the one we're seeing now about birth control, in the Affordable Care Act?
KAINEI think, look, it's going to continue to be a significant point of debate and discussion. But I'll tell you what I see happening, though, on the debate about the Affordable Care Act. When I got here, the debate was -- I mean, and I'm going to slightly oversimplify, but not much -- where Republicans repeal or nothing, that was all they were interested in, even to the point of we'll shut down government if we don't get to repeal it.
KAINEAnd Democrats were -- we passed this. We can't touch it, reform it, improve it 'cause, if we do, we're acknowledging that it's not perfect. So there were sort of on the Democratic side a we won't even talk about reforms. And on the Republican side, we won't talk about anything other than repeal. That was sort of where it was at the beginning of 2013. By the end of 2013, the really poor rollout of the Affordable Care Act exchanges, you know -- and to those of us who'd been governors and had been executives, you look at that, and you think, how could they have let that happen?
KAINEI mean -- and I'm a supporter of the ACA and the president, and yet it was a huge disappointment. That humbled the White House. It's humbled some of the folks who were in the we can't talk about reform, and so it's created, among Democrats, a willingness -- OK, let's talk reforms, and not just about the Affordable Care Act. Let's talk healthcare reforms generally.
KAINEOn the other side, Republicans, those who were talking about repeal or nothing, well, now, 9 million American have health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act, either because of the Medicaid expansion in the states where it's happened or people who purchased health insurance either through the state or federal exchanges that the ACA created or youngsters between 21 and 26 that are on family policies.
KAINESo 9 million people have health insurance now who didn't have it before. And suddenly the Republicans, you know, are not so excited about going into their kitchens and yanking it away from them. And so it's creating a pro-reform constituency on the Republican side, too. So Democrats are now open to reform who weren't before. Republicans who only wanted to talk about repeal are suddenly realizing maybe reform is the right way to go.
KAINEAnd that's what the American public has been telling us for about the last 18 months. Get over the 45th vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act and just be reformers and fix them. So I am in discussions in the Senate, as are others, with Democrats and Republicans every day about reforms that we can make. There will be some controversies where the Rs will, you know, want to do something with respect to, you know, contraception and the Ds won't, where they'll be controversial.
KAINEBut there's also now a whole series of reform discussions going on, and that's exactly what we ought to be doing. And I think that's -- if we harness the reform, the growing reform caucus, you know, then we'll do better things for the American public.
FISHERI'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, and we are talking on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" with Sen. Tim Kaine from Virginia. And here's Mark in Virginia with a question about ObamaCare. Mark, you're on the air.
FISHERYes, go ahead. Are you there?
MARKPleasure meeting Sen. Kaine.
FISHERYes, go ahead. Are you there?
MARKPleasure meeting you, Senator Kaine.
MARKCan you hear me all right?
KAINEYeah, I can hear you fine. Thanks.
MARKOh, okay. I had the pleasure of meeting you several years ago when you were considering your current office. And, you know, I have to say, just for the public in general, the man is not only as intelligent as he sounds, he's extremely humble. A wonderful politician. But, with regard to Obamacare, I have to say I am disappointed in the job that the Democrats have done in terms of educating the public. I am in healthcare. And even a magazine like National Geographic -- which is not a political magazine -- several years ago ran a story about the cost per capita in the industrialized world in terms of morbidity and mortality outcomes.
MARKWe had the highest per capita cost and the worst morbidity and mortality outcomes. Now, if you listen to Fox News you hear we have the best medical system in the world. Now that's true for the very wealthy, but it's not true for the average person. And we could do a whole lot better and do things a lot more efficiently in a more cost-effective way. But the Democrats have done a poor job in explaining these very real facts to the general public. And I really wish that you guys would get more involved in doing that so there would be a little less resistance to these necessary reforms.
KAINEMark, I think you raise a real good point. And I can't speak for everybody, but when I ran for the Senate in 2012 I ran against a guy who said we ought to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And I, for 19 months, said no, the Affordable Care Act is good. There's some problems with it. It's not perfect, but it's good for a lot of reasons, including some of those you cited. There's a great chart that's floating around up on Capitol Hill now that shows, you know, on the X and Y axis, the per capita spending on healthcare and life expectancy.
KAINEAnd that generally, the more per capita spending on healthcare the better the life expectancy, but then you get to the U.S. on the chart, which is an incredibly outlier because it's way higher than anybody else on per capita spending. But the life expectancy is significantly less than many other nations who spend less. And so you're right about that cost curve. One of Marc Fisher's former colleagues at the Post, T. R. Reid, wrote a wonderful book called, "The Healing of America," that really lays out these stats in a great way. Now, one of the reasons that I'm a supporter of the Affordable Care Act is it's doing a lot of good every day. It's helping families like mine.
KAINEI've been turned down trying to get insurance for family members because of preexisting conditions. They can't do that anymore. It's helping seniors with lower cost prescription drugs and free preventive care. It's helping small businesses who can get tax credits to buy health insurance for their employees. It's enabling kids to stay on family policies up to age 26.
KAINEThere's a whole lot of good that's being done. However, it is also the case that in a couple of key areas, the creation of these exchanges and others, you know, things weren't handled the right way. And we in Congress who provide oversight over an executive branch, we've got to tell the story about things that the A.C. are doing well, but we can't be afraid to get in and battle to keep it but also battle to make it better.
FISHERThanks for the call, Mark. Senator, the health issue is playing out both in Washington and in Richmond.
FISHERAnd Governor-elect McAuliffe is going to have -- his big battle this year will be on whether he's able to expand Medicaid under ObamaCare and the Republican House leaders in Virginia are saying that's not going to happen. But you do have, for the first time in many years now, full Democratic control, both U.S. Senate seats, the governorship, all of the statewide-elected positions. Will that enable this new governor to accomplish something like the expansion of Medicaid?
KAINEMarc, this is going to be a really tough one because I know the players pretty well. And Bill Howell, the Speaker in that very strongly Republican dominated House of Delegates has said, "We don't want to expand Medicaid." Terry McAuliffe ran very bluntly on it. This is something we should do. He won the election, so he has a mandate to do it and I applaud him for being as clear as he can be. And it would be a very good thing for Virginia, not only for Virginians who need health insurance, but for the Virginia economy to do this expansion.
KAINEAbout a month before the election a hospital in far southwest Virginia, Lee County which borders -- really, it's the far southwest corner of the state -- closed down. And they said if the state had done the Medicaid expansion we would be able to remain open. And so this, you know, hospitals are often major employers in communities, especially rural communities.
KAINEAnd yet they have a lot to gain if we can do this expansion. So it's going to be tough. I think what's going to be required, frankly, for Terry, the governor elect, to figure out a way to get the House on board is if Virginia can ask for some reforms and some waivers to try to tailor the Medicaid expansion to meet particular state needs, if CMS, Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, are willing to work with the state in that way.
KAINEYou know, give the House of Delegates the ability to say we didn't just do the expansion off-the-shelf. We tailored it to Virginia's circumstance with some appropriate reforms. If CMS will consider that I think Terry has a good chance of making it happen. And the CMS director, Marilyn Tavenner, is somebody who came out of Virginia.
KAINESo it's somebody that everybody knows and has a good working relationship with. So I think it's going to be hard and I don't think it's going to happen immediately, certainly. It's going to take some patient relationship building and exploration of reforms that could serve Virginians well and answer some of the concerns that the Republican House leadership has.
FISHERAnd let's hear from Tim, in Chantilly. Tim, you're on the air.
TIMThank you. And I appreciate you having the Senator on.
TIMSenator, I'm a big fan of a lot of the things that you do, but I'm going to harken back to a very difficult issue. And that was the Dulles toll road. When I went up the road recently on January 1st, I noticed it went to $2.50 for my short little four-mile trip. And I think, unfortunately, one of the low points of your governorship was when you turned over this taxpayer-funded road to the unelected body of the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority.
TIMAnd that unelected body doesn't have to answer to anybody now. And we're funding the Silver Line out to the Dulles Airport in a way different than any of the other roads were funded. And it's completely on the back of those of us who must take the road every day.
TIMAnd I want to know if there is anything that we can do to rein in this unelected body, since our elected officials are one of the few people that have a small amount of influence over them, so they don't just keep putting this higher and higher tax burden on the people that live out here.
KAINEYeah, Tim, look -- and I guess it's the Tim and Mark Show today because our questioners have been Tim and Mark.
KAINEAs well as this Tim and Marc. You know, this is something that I feel very, very good about, the Silver Line extension to Dulles. And I recognize that it has increased tolls and that part of the funding for building the Silver Line is through tolls. There's other funding mechanisms as well, including additional property taxes in the corridor that will be benefited by it. But, you know, I just don't think the right path for the growth of Northern Virginia demanded that we have rail out to Dulles and beyond, that the Northern Virginia economy is not going to be all that it can be absent an extension of Metro west to Dulles and hopefully, eventually, all the way to Leesburg.
KAINESo there had to be a way to finance it. And that financing strategy is a combination. It's a state and local funds. And my strong hope is that with the transportation bill that was passed the state will put more money into it because that can bring the toll rates down. It's toll rates, obviously, and then the third is federal support. And the federal support was significant in phase one. And is going to be significant in phase two. I look forward to working with the Airports Authority, but frankly, more specifically, with the elected leadership of both Fairfax and Loudoun in the corridor, to figure out strategies.
KAINEWhether it's, you know, advocacy for more state funding, advocacy for more federal funding that can bring toll rates down. But the, you know, to build a -- I was convinced that we needed to build a rail operation for the good of Northern Virginia. And there's just a limited number of funding sources you can go after. And, you know, I think Northern Virginia traffic and the economy will work better with that rail solution than without.
FISHERWell, we just have a few seconds left with Senator Tim Kaine. And, Senator, I can't end without noting the appointment by governor-elect McAuliffe of your wife Anne Holton as education secretary of Virginia. How's that going to change the dynamic in your relationships with folks in Richmond?
KAINEWell it'll -- Marc, thank you for asking and mentioning that. My wife Anne is a really interesting person. I think you guys might have been in college together.
FISHERWe were, classmates.
KAINEIf I remember right.
KAINEShe is -- has worked every, you know, she's been out of law school 31 years. She probably wouldn't want me aging her that way, but she's been out of law school 31 years and pretty much every day she's gone to work to battle for at-risk kids and their families, mostly in the juvenile justice and social services world as a legal aid lawyer, juvenile court judge and then child welfare advocate. But recently she has been the CEO of a program in the Virginia Community College system to help children aging out of foster care use the community colleges as their sort of trampoline to life success.
KAINEWhen Governor-elect McAuliffe kind of surprised her by reaching out and asked if she would do this job, she said pretty bluntly, "Look, you know, I am not a teacher or a superintendent. I am a battler for at-risk kids. If you want somebody who will raise the circumstances of at-risk kids every time we talk about education I'm exactly the right person. If you want something different I'm not the right person. And Governor-elect McAuliffe, to his credit, said, "That's just what I want."
KAINESo I think what you'll see with my wife as education secretary, it's a message that Governor-elect McAuliffe is sending, that -- the Virginia system is pretty strong, third in the nation in the percentage of kids that take and pass A.P. exams, some great public institutions at the higher ed. level, but like most states we could do a lot better, especially by at-risk kids. And I think he wanted somebody who would be a champion for them every day. And I know from very up-close and personal experience my wife will be that champion.
FISHEROkay. Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia. Thanks very much for being with us.
KAINEOkay. Thanks, Marc.
FISHERAnd when we come back after a short break, beyond Instagram, food and social media and the influence that any eater can have. We'll back in a few minutes.
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