Delaware’s Senator Chris Coons joined me this morning to talk about the Senate’s rules:
HH: Pleased to welcome Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, back to the program. Good morning, Senator, always a pleasure to talk to you.
CC: Good morning, Hugh. This was a remarkable weekend. And I have just read and really enjoyed your Washington Post editorial. It’s just not often enough I get to hear about Henry Cabot Lodge. And as someone with Boston roots, he was a great senator who has now largely faded from memory. And I think you make an absolutely correct point that the Senate is essential to our Constitutional order and is enjoying well-deserved opprobrium as a place where great ideas go to simmer, sift and slowly die.
HH: And slowly die. Now I just had your colleague, Joni Ernst, on. So I want to give you her compliment. I asked her per my Washington Post column if there was a gang of reform, a gang of eight who worked on a package of bipartisan rules that would address the body’s dysfunction, who would she put on it from across the aisle, and she immediately said well, Angus King, Chris Coons, Amy Klobuchar and anybody else. And then she nominated herself, Senator Lankford, Senator Fischer, Lisa Murkowski. I noted among that they all have a wide array of ideological points of view.
HH: But they have reasonable spirits.
CC: Yes. And Joni, just to give the compliment back, Joni is someone who I have successfully legislated with. We both have a passion for the National Guard. She has a record of actual service in the National Guard, combat service. And I went to her very early in her service with an idea that was also something that she embraced, and I think was one of the first of her bills that became law. She’s come to me with an idea for strengthening teachers in their role in schools, and we’re up to, I think, 12 bipartisan cosponsors on the Teachers Are Leaders Act. Legislating with someone is a great experience. And the way I approach my job is that every day, I try to find Republicans with whom I can find something to legislate on. So I heard the list of who you’ve got on today. Every single one of them, I am either co-chair of a caucus with them, or currently have a legislative vehicle with them that we’re trying to move forward. And that’s how you get to know each other. That’s how you find a positive spirit together. If you go and sit down with someone and say you know, I disagree with you on this, I disagree with you on this, I disagree with you on this, and that’s all you ever do, you’ll stop sitting down together, and you’ll stop trying to work together. If instead you focus not on the 80% you disagree on, but the 20% you can agree on, you’ll build a relationship. That’s how I came to be really good friends with Johnny Isakson of Georgia, a gracious gentleman, but someone who’s a real conservative. I mean, we disagree on quite a few important issues, but we found a spirit of legislative intent. Whatever talent…
HH: She also mentioned that your office is close by hers and Tom Cotton’s, so the three of you spend a lot of time walking the hall together.
HH: That itself is a bridge to agreement on at least resolution of key things.
CC: And you know what her secret weapon is? Some spectacular Iowa popcorn that’s always available in her anteroom. And I, her staff have gotten tired of me dipping in, actually not, they’re very gracious. They’re very gracious.
HH: Well, let me ask you about…
CC: I nick a little popcorn every now and then.
HH: Let me ask you about the two areas – minor appointments, and I’ve talked to you about people like Rick Grenell and assistant secretaries before.
CC: Rick Grenell, absolutely.
HH: But minor appointments and appropriations seem to me to be the areas where you could get to some kind of majoritarian while retaining the ability to move forward legislation of the sort you talked about, because you’re not going to have any time to do any joint legislation if all of the time of the Senate is given over to appointment 30 hour debates.
CC: That’s right. One of the few remaining powers that the minority has under our current rules structure is to slow walk appointments, is to make it harder and harder to move through judicial nominees and ambassadorial nominees. That was done under Obama. It’s being done now. It is not constructive. And if we had more trust between the caucuses and between our leadership, and if we had a more functional Senate, we would be able to move folks who were not objectionable. When you’ve got nominees who clear the Judiciary Committee, or clear the Foreign Relations Committee unanimously or with only one or two objections, to go through a full 30 hours on them puts an enormous amount of pressure on the leader to prioritize what’s going to get through the floor. And then you get nominees that back up and back up and back up until there is pressure, and then some group effort that releases a whole bunch of hostages. Now this is a bipartisan effort. There are Republicans senators who are holding up certain nominees…
CC: …because of disagreements with the President. So lest your audience think this is only bad Democrats, it is a tool that senators use to get the attention of the administration or the majority.
HH: Now I just saw you on Morning Joe say you’d spent many hours in conversation across the aisle. I am wondering if out of that, and look, the Schumer Shutdown was a fiasco. I’m not going to beat you up. I’m not going to do a victory dance. But is there out of that eight hours of conversation the possibility the leaders would allow a smaller group to at least work on something, because the Senate’s reputation just can’t get any worse.
CC: Well, one of the things that we talked about consistently as a group was how appropriations aren’t moving. The biggest unresolved issue on our big menu of things that cause many of us to say it’s time for us to stop kicking the can down the road and do 30 day CR’s and 30 day CR’s, I’ll remind you Friday night, the assistant to the Secretary of Defense put out a statement saying the Department of Defense cannot tolerate more short-term CR’s. This is no way to fund the world’s most powerful and most expensive military. And they have enormous contracts and readiness investments, and new development in platforms that require reliable appropriations. We haven’t resolved the budget caps to lift sequester and to fund our Defense and domestic priorities for a fiscal year that started four months ago.
CC: So most of the folks you described I know would be much more enthusiastic about working across the aisle on some of these other issues if we could come to an agreement that would fully fund our Department of Defense. And we talked with Lamar Alexander, who was part of this bipartisan working group, but the one who is most seasoned, and has been an appropriator the longest, we asked him what suggestions do you have from a process point of view about how we could move forward on appropriations. And he had several suggestions that would require bipartisan work on the Rules Committee. Amy Klobuchar, who was also mentioned by Joni Ernst, the senator from Minnesota, is the ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee. I think a change like the ones we discussed would have to happen through regular order by more than 60 senators voting for it rather than through the so-called nuclear option. I don’t mean to get in the weeds. Yes, I think there would be value, Hugh, in having a bipartisan group sit down and look at how we could improve or reform the appropriations process. Right now, the average senator has no voice in appropriations, so if you’re trying to get something done for your state, you have to depend on a bureaucrat often in an administration of the opposing party to embrace the idea that there’s a particular bridge or a particular high school or an economic development project that is worthy of public investment. That’s disempowering to your typical senator. And then second, you know, I’m the ranking member on an appropriations subcommittee that controls $20 billion dollars in spending. We never even marked up our bill.
CC: And Senator Capito is a wonderful chair. I work well with her. We understand each other’s differences and disagreements. But we’ve waited for months and never marked up our bill. That’s no way to appropriate. If this was the private sector, we’d all be fired.
HH: Well, that is, that’s the point of my column. And no one else, no one in real world land looks at the Senate and says oh, that’s how I’d run my business.
HH: Let me close…
CC: Operational excellence is not one of our main areas of focus.
HH: Well, let me close with the Dreamers. I don’t see the problem. I want to regularize the 700,000 to a million Dreamers who have not got violence or criminal background. I need $25 billion, Kevin McCarthy says, to secure the border. I want to make sure that those Dreamers who are regularized cannot bring in their families and jump to the front of the line, and I think we’ve got to look at the lottery. This is not hard, Senator Coons. Why is this hard?
CC: Well, what’s striking about this is five years ago, Hugh, when we did a bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill in the Senate, the Dreamer issue, giving them status here, a path to citizenship was not the hard part of the bill. It was the easiest part of the bill, because they are so sympathetic, the hundreds of thousands of them who are members of our community, and who pay taxes and work, or go to school or are serving in our military. And addressing the other issues you mentioned, get harder. If they become full citizens in 10, 12 years, you cannot restrict their ability to do things that other citizens can do. But you can pose some limitation on their parents who brought them here illegally. Addressing so-called chain migration or family migration is a very difficult issue. And the diversity visa lottery, let’s be honest with each other, got a lot harder with the President’s vulgar comments and then the back and forth about who said what. That’s what blew up this whole thing. And that is in no small part what led to the conversations and the difficulties of this past weekend. I choose to be optimistic.
CC: And a group of us are now working together to try and address how do we move forward.
HH: Put a bill on the table. Let the American people see a bill. That’s my advice to you, because when we see bills, we don’t assume the worst. We actually go to work on the text. And so I wish you good luck with that. Senator Chris Coons, always a pleasure. Follow him on Twitter, @ChrisCoons.
End of interview.