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In WAMC interview, Sen. Gillibrand says House Republicans barreling toward shutdown amid "stupid" impeachment effort

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in Cohoes, NY
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in Cohoes, NY

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand spoke with WAMC News about a number of issues on Wednesday, including a looming government shutdown.

First things first, are you taking advantage of the loosened dress code so far?

That's really funny. No, I am still wearing a suit, I don't really know what that was about. The intention I guess is to make sure everybody feels comfortable in the Senate and likely to come to the floor, as opposed to not.

Well, let's talk about some real news. As we speak, what do you think the likelihood is that the government will shut down at the end of the month?

Well, the biggest challenge we have is that McCarthy does not have control of his caucus. And it's really clear in the authorities he gave away to his members to take him out of leadership, with just one individual wanting a vote (which) has really restricted his ability to get things done. I think the American people deserve a Congress that actually functions, this is chaotic. And if they do shut down, which I think is likely, it's going to cost the economy billions of dollars, it's going to mean a lot of people will not be paid. And it's going to create a lot of disruption for a lot of people that rely on the federal government for different things.

Over the summer, the idea emerged of a short-term extender. As we speak now, that idea seems to have fallen apart within the House GOP conference. So what's the endgame here? What's the way out of this?

So McCarthy has two options. He can either figure out how to get control of his caucus, which he's been failing at so far, or he could reach across the aisle, and create a coalition of willing Congress members to do common sense management of our budget and our country. And there are at least 20 or 30 Democrats that stand ready to do that work with him. The Senate has been functioning on a bipartisan basis very effectively and in fact, the Senate Appropriations Committee actually completed 12 bills, which means they have consensus on 12 pieces of legislation for funding of every aspect of the government. So they're ready to vote on all of them, they put three of them together to make what we call a minibus. So three bills, one was the defense bill, and then the one was the VA bill, and I forget what the third one was Maybe HHS, but whatever it was, they agreed to three and said, 'Let's at least just vote on these three,' and one senator shut that down. But I think that McCarthy just has to make a choice. And I think from what I could see from the outside, the far right wanted the impeachment vote, they got their stupid vote, and they're using their tactics, political tactics and cynical arguments against the president. So in exchange, they should be passing a budget. And so for them to sort of go back on that deal is really outrageous. So unfortunately, the country is going to pay and people will suffer because they're unwilling to govern.

Let me ask you about the impeachment vote. Have you seen any evidence of wrongdoing by President Biden or his family in your mind that would justify such a probe?

What I think has happened is the House has just opened their inquiry. They didn't even have the votes to vote on it, but they have just opened it. But arguably, that should have satisfied the far right that wanted the inquiry open. So I don't know why the far right is still objecting to doing a budget since they actually got what they asked for.

Let's talk about some specifics. In recent days, you've been warning about some things that are hanging in the balance given the government funding question, including the coming child care cliff. So what's the problem there, and what's the solution in your view?

So we during COVID realized that we needed to fund childcare much more significantly, because they were going out of business. A lot of kids could not go to daycare because of concerns about COVID. Workers couldn't go, workers had COVID, so a lot of childcare centers shut down during the heat of COVID. And so we created a $24 billion child care stabilization fund that was part of the American Rescue Plan to get those child care centers back up and running. Approximately 70,000 child care programs, or one in three, are now likely going to close because that funding will not be there anymore. That could leave 3.2 million kids without child care, and would really jeopardize about 230,000 child care jobs. So, it's really worrisome. Half of American families live in areas where there's only one slot for every three kids that need care, and if this funding is discontinued, that will increase exponentially.

You recently visited all 62 counties of New York State, à la Leader Schumer. What do you think you learned on that trip?

Well I loved going to all 62 counties, because when you get to some of the rural counties that are hard to get to, you really can hear from constituents: what is on their mind what they want done. And it was very important for me to do it this year, because I'm helping to write the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is a piece of legislation we pass every five years, and it's essential that you spend time in all of the rural counties because they have lots of businesses that will benefit from the Farm Bill. Whether it's a farm, whether it's a brewery, whether it's a distillery, whether it's a winery, whether it's a yogurt manufacturer, all of these businesses benefit significantly from different programs that are funded through the Farm Bill. And so I wanted to have time to talk to those constituents early to hear what their biggest concerns are, how they're doing in terms of having enough employees, how they're doing in terms of the climate, how they're doing in terms of weather issues and storms. I mean, all those issues are relevant to what we're going to do in the Farm Bill. So I thought it was important to speak to them and hear from them early.

What will be the fate of SNAP benefits tied to work requirements in the next Farm Bill?

So the Republicans want to cut SNAP benefits, the Democrats want to preserve SNAP benefits. We've found that hunger has increased post-COVID, not decreased. There was a lot of food insecurity during the three years of the pandemic, and a lot of it stayed because some people left work, they never went back. Some people have mental health challenges that made working difficult. There's just a lot of fall off because of the pandemic. So what we're trying to do is make sure that we can fund these programs so that people can get food so they're not hungry. During COVID, we figured out kids were really at risk, particularly students, and we made eligibility for college students. We figured out that kids in foster care were really unstable because once they're 18, they no longer have a family to go back to, because they age out, and so they needed coverage. So we fixed a lot of things in the SNAP program. So our goal is to keep those fixes in so more people can get access to the food. We made some deals on work requirements earlier on in the year, and I think those don't need to be revisited. So that piece might be taken care of, but the overall number and how generous these programs are is definitely going to be debated.

I was talking to Senator Peter Welch from next door Vermont, and he suggested the Farm Bill could also be late this year. Is that your expectation?

We are negotiating it right now, and I'm hopeful that we can still get it done by the end of the year. The Farm Bill technically runs out September 30, but the programs all have money and so they don't actually get into trouble until December 30.

OK, one more thing about your New York road trip. It was by RV. Did you stay in the RV overnight?

Well, I was willing, but my children protested and said, 'No, Mom!' But we have stayed in the RV before and we really did have a good time. We went to Watkins Glen and RVed for a few nights there to watch NASCAR a couple of years ago. So this year, we basically use the RV as our rolling office. And so I had meetings, press interviews, I met with staff, it was great, and my husband drove it for the first few days and my chief staff drove it for the last few days. Everybody had fun in the RV, everybody loves the RV, I think the RV was a winner.

OK, let's talk about some other issues now. Governor Kathy Hochul and Mayor Adams have been calling on the federal government to intensify its response to the arrival of migrants in New York state, and a lot of the upstate communities have either fought or accommodated some of the asylum seekers in their respective regions. What do you think needs to change in how the situation is being handled?

So there are several places where our immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed, all of those places need to be done legislatively. And so our biggest, biggest challenge is not the governor, not the mayor, and not the president. The biggest challenge is the House of Representatives because they will not change the law, they will not work with me on bipartisan bills, they won't fix the problem, and I'll go through some of the problems. First of all, most of the migrants that are showing up to the border are coming there legally to get to seek asylum, which is allowed by law, and if you don't like that, you have to change the law, period. Second, the number of people who are coming across illegally, sneaking across, is diminishing and has been reduced significantly under the last few years because President Biden just changed the policy.

He basically said, 'If you show up to the border, and you haven't applied from country of origin, you are prohibited for five years from showing up at the border.' That was a very good change that's working, so most of these asylum seekers are here legally, and so their claims must be adjudicated. That's taking too long. We need more lawyers and we need more judges. I have two pieces of legislation to do exactly that, I do not have a House member from the New York delegation who's Republican to support it. They need to be asking their leadership to vote on these bills. If we could adjudicate asylum claims in three months as opposed to three years, then the two thirds of people that are here who are not eligible for asylum would be sent home. Third, the length to wait for visas is too long. The law requires 180 days, that's six months, that's too long. I have legislation to make it 30 days. Any one of my Republican colleagues could co-sponsor that, and help me move that, and get a vote on that. So the lack of participation is harming us. So what I'm doing instead is I'm now asking if the president can use any emergency authorities or any executive authorities to just issue work visas now, because New York needs it.

And I would go so far as to say issue work visas to governors that are willing to find the jobs, and find the sponsors, and do the work to get people in the work in the workplace immediately, and Governor Hochul’s willing to do that work. So I'm pushing the White House to do something extrajudicial, outside the precedent, outside the existing law based on emergency or executive powers so that we could solve the problem. We don't have enough affordable housing in New York, we don't have enough shelter space in New York, we've had a homeless crisis and a mental health crisis post-COVID that is real, and adding thousands of migrants on top of that has been too much. It's been too much of a burden. If people could be working, that means they can pay their own bills, they can pay taxes, and we need the help. We have 200,000 open jobs in New York right now, 200,000! And when I did this RV tour and talked to our farmers, and talked to our distilleries, and talk to our brewers, all of them said they needed more workers, and they would hire migrants immediately if they could. So we have the jobs in our restaurants,, and in our hotels and in our farms, and in our hospitals. And so we need workers. Here are workers who want to work, we just need to have a visa so they can do it legally. So if the Republican House is unwilling to change the laws, then I'm asking for emergency measures.

Well, is the White House receptive to that call?

You know, the challenge is there's no precedent for it, and there's no legal basis for it, so the law is the law. And I think though under emergencies and under executive powers maybe they can issue some trial emergency decision, and yes they’ll be sued in court and they may lose in court. I still think it would be helpful. For example, I would like them to issue temporary protective status for all Venezuelans. They will be challenged in court, they are likely going to lose in court. But, 40% of these migrants are Venezuelans, and if you have temporary protective status, you can work right away, you can work with 30 days as opposed to 180 days. So those are the kinds of things that I just want to keep trying even if the White House is sued and even if they lose in court. It's worth trying everything because the Republican House is unwilling to do the work of changing the laws that they don't like. Last issue is, we gave refugee status automatically to all Ukrainians, and to all Afghanis. We did that purposely because Afghanistan was collapsing under Taliban rule, and we did it in Ukraine because of Russia invading. These other countries are equally as unstable, just in different ways. And we are very generous as a nation, we are very generous as a state. We help people in grave need. We can make this work and we need to change the law, and if the house is unwilling to change the law, then we need an emergency measures. And that's what I keep pitching and I think we just have to try it, even if we fail in court. It's worth it because there's an emergency, we need help right now.

Senator Gillibrand, our time is short, so let's move to the lightning round portion of our conversation if that's OK. You've been working with Josh Hawley, who's perhaps an unlikely ally, to ban stock trading by lawmakers and executive branch employees. What's the status of the bill? And I know this is not the first effort on this front, so what's different about this effort?

So my first effort in this area was 10 years ago when we heard reporting that members of Congress were buying and selling stock based on nonpublic information and making money off their jobs, which we thought was unethical. So I required along with some Democrats and Republicans, we wrote a law to require members of Congress to disclose all their purchases and sales of stocks. Well, 10 years later, how are they doing? Very poorly. We know that one in three years trading stocks, one in seven are not disclosing those trades. 97 members of Congress or their spouses or dependents traded companies that affected their committees. 3700 stock trades between 2019-21 were potentially conflicts of interest. And here's the real kicker: 17.5% is the average amount by which members of Congress stock portfolios outperformed the S&P 500 in 2022. (They’re) not smarter, they just are using nonpublic information. And the executive branch has similar stats that are not helpful, so our bill says members of Congress and senior executives in the executive branch cannot buy (themselves) stock. They can't, their spouses can’t, and their minor children can't because they just haven't followed the rules over the last 10 years. So that's what we're proposing. I think there could be strong support for this bill on a bipartisan basis, so we're going to just keep getting co-sponsors and try to socialize it, and try to ask for a vote.

What did you think of Senator Romney's retirement announcement?

I was a little disappointed. I think Senator Romney has done a great job being bipartisan and working with others and crossing the aisle. I will miss him, I think he's a great statesman and has done a great job in the Senate. I think standing up to Trump was not easy, but he had the courage to do so, and I really respect him for that.

There's been a lot of published concerns in recent days about both President Biden's age and his ability to stand for a second term. Do you have any reservations about re-nominating President Biden in 2024?

No reservations, I'm all in. Will fully endorse him. Hope he wins. Will do whatever it takes to help him get elected. And I think he's got a great record to run on. I think the bipartisan infrastructure bill is enormous for New York, all the different types of investments we're going to make. The fact that we got a huge CHIPS Act, the semiconductor manufacturing bill is going to create jobs all across New York, the fact that my big gun trafficking bill got passed and put into law, that we're arresting traffickers, confiscating weapons, and we paired it with a lot of money for mental health, particularly for violence disruption, and he just lowered prescription drug prices for all seniors, like, in a really meaningful way. So he's got a great record to run on. I think he's our best candidate.

Last question. You have been pressing the Department of Defense for more information about UAPs, also known as UFOs, have you gotten any answers?

Not any answers that you would think were interesting. What I have learned is this: we have not been really patrolling the skies in a meaningful way. The FAA looks at this sky for air traffic control to make sure planes don't crash and Space Force and parts of Commerce Department, they do the work of making sure we know where satellites are and what they're doing. But nobody's been looking in between. And the spy balloon was a big wakeup call that other countries are taking advantage of this and spying on us, China being one of them. So we'd heard a lot of reporting from pilots that they keep seeing drones and other different types unidentified flying objects, unidentified aerial phenomenon, doesn't matter what you call it, it's something in the air that you don't understand. Some look like drones, some look like balloons. And they really see it as a safety issue that they're gonna crash into these objects. And they've been very distressed about it.

So I was chair of the Personnel Subcommittee when a lot of these reports were coming in. And so I wanted to create an office that would review all these UAPs and assess what are they? Are they spy balloons? Are they spy drones? Are they something else? We need to have domain awareness and we need to have air superiority for our national security. And so now we have an office that's been reviewing all these cases, they have about 800 cases they're reviewing. They're assessing what they are. A lot of are drones, a lot of them are balloons, a lot of them are unclear. But we are going to add sensors, we are going to add detection devices on our aircraft, we're going to do over the horizon radars, we're going to do a lot more to have that domain awareness and air superiority. And that I think is really important and meaningful because if there is any UAP out there that's not from here, we will find that. We will be able to assess that and, and if not, then we've got a lot going on that is probably adversaries like China, Russia and Iran, that we have a huge responsibility to know what they're doing.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.