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Sen. Gillibrand on Biden, Harris, Trump, COVID relief and 2021 priorities

Pat Bradley / WAMC

New York U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said she is “leaning toward” supporting a modified COVID relief bill championed by Senate centrists. The $908 billion proposal unveiled earlier this week would revive a special jobless benefit at a reduced level of $300 per week, among other things. Gillibrand says she views the package as a placeholder before the Biden administration and next Congress begin in January. Gillibrand talked about COVID relief, the presidential transition and her priorities for 2021 with WAMC’s Ian Pickus.

What is your top priority for this lame duck period?

The most important thing, obviously COVID relief. We are desperate to get more money into our state, we need state money for the state budget, we need local money for mayors budgets and county leaders budgets. Without normal revenue streams of people's income and taxes. It's put a such a amount of pressure on the budgets for our first responders, for our frontline workers for our health care system, for our food bags for our homeless shelters for domestic violence shelters. And so my biggest priority is to get more resources into another COVID package, so we can have more unemployment insurance, more money for food banks, more money for homelessness, and more money for our city and state.

Now, you said earlier this week, you weren't sure about the new compromise package that was being put forward by the the centrists in the Senate. Have you made up your mind on that particular bill?

I'm looking at it closely. It's a $908 billion bill, which could provide some immediate relief for the state and the city. It's not nearly enough, which is one of the challenges, but it would be short term, it would only be for a few months. It would have the needed federal unemployment benefits; it has about only $300 a week. So it's less than the $600 a week that we wanted for four months. So that's some money, but not all the money we need. It includes about $160 billion for cities and states, which again, not nearly enough, it does have some money for small businesses, schools, healthcare, transit, student loans, and vaccines.

So I think it has a good balance of resources in there for most of the things that we need, just less money than we need. So I'm going to think about it a little more to make sure it's good enough to support. I think people feel a little more confident than they did before because at least President-elect Biden wants to have COVID relief packages, and we'll be pushing for them in the new year as well. So maybe this is the kind of bipartisan bill that could just get us a few more months of relief to people who desperately need it. I really wouldn't want the year to end without, in fact, supporting more relief now, because it's just too risky and too dangerous to have nothing going into these families and parts of the country that are so much in need. So I'm weighing it, and I'm leaning towards it. I'm disappointed that it doesn't have certain things, but I'm weighing the likelihood of having nothing. So that's where I am today.

Is your calculus partially that there's a risk that if the Democrats don't win those George's Senate runoffs, and Mitch McConnell is still in charge of the Senate in the next year, you might still be waiting on the bigger package that President-elect Biden supports?

Right. And the problem is, is that people's unemployment insurance runs out at the end of the year. And people a lot of the different protections we put in place all run out at the end of the year. So part of me desperately wants to get more resources into those hands ASAP. So they just can survive a few more months. I mean, it's, it's really great. If you've traveled around the state, like I have, and visited the food banks and the shelter system, it's frightening. And families are just in desperate need. And we have to meet that need. So for those reasons, I think, and the uncertainty of the new year, I think it's important to get some resources into state and into the people's homes and food onto their tables.

Do you think that the Democrats will win those Senate races in Georgia?

I think we've got a fair shot, I think it's 50-50. And I think folks have to work really hard to get every vote out to make sure people know that their voice matters, and know that their vote counts, and really just organize that state and do everything we can to make sure every voter is turned out. And I'm optimistic that we can we can get there. It's just gonna take a lot of work and a lot of determination. And the good news is, people like Stacey Abrams have been on the ground for a while really talking to voters about how vital their voices are, and making sure they know that by voting and by making sure all their neighbors and loved ones vote.

Now the backdrop to all of this is that President Trump is yet to concede the race and he's raised a lot of baseless claims about the sanctity of this vote. What kind of damage do you think is being done right now with Trump refusing to get off the stage?

You know, it's just it's as part of his narcissism. He can't admit that he didn't win and he's, you know, fighting tooth and nail for no reason. I do believe though all his of avenues for contesting the election have closed. The lawsuits have largely made no headway for him. They were spurious to begin with. And the elections in the key states have all been certified. We now have authority from OMB to do transitions. So the Biden team is now getting their daily briefings and national security briefings, have access to the administration. And so things are moving forward towards transition. Whether President Trump ever concedes or believes he lost, it doesn't matter. The wheels of our democracy are moving and they're moving towards inauguration in January of President-elect Biden and Kamala Harris.

At one point, the three of you are all in the same primary debate stage. Have you had a chance to speak with the president-elect or the vice president-elect since Election Day?

Yes, and I can't tell you how proud I am of both of them. I talked to Kamala on Thanksgiving. And you know, she's working every day 24/7, to really transition this country to a better government that meets the needs of people. Kamala and I worked very well together in the Senate. So I look forward to helping her with writing legislation and delivering on some of the ideas that she and I both worked on. And I've talked to President-elect Biden several times, and we have enormous common ground on issues related to the armed services, related to our veterans, to try to pass legislation to work on things like national paid leave, and affordable daycare and universal pre-K, there's such a big agenda out there that very much overlaps between President-elect Biden's agenda and work that I do in the Senate every day. So I feel like this is an opportunity for me to be extremely prolific and to really help this new administration thrive and succeed. And I will do that through my committee work and through legislation.

Your name has been on a lot of lists of potential administration appointments or positions. So do you see yourself in the Senate next year? Or have you talked about any any jobs with the Biden administration?

I've not talked about any jobs as the Biden ministration. And I've told the president-elect that I stand ready to serve and help and to be his go-to person in the U.S. Senate. I think that I can really help him in the Senate. I feel it's an enormous privilege to serve in the Senate for New York. And I think I'm well positioned to be someone who can deliver bipartisan results that President-elect Biden needs. So I look forward to serving in the Senate and I think I can be useful here.

What do you think of the cabinet appointments that he has made to date?

I'm really excited about them. I have to say, I really like his national security team. I like his economic team. They have really a lot of bright light. A lot of backgrounds and experiences. They are very different. He has really committed to having the most diverse cabinet in the world, which makes me have great faith that he will have the best minds around him. And I think that is exactly what country needs. And I'm excited about the people he selected so far.

A moment ago, you mentioned your burn pits legislation. Last time I saw you in person was actually in Albany while you were promoting that legislation. What would it do and what is the holdup to getting it passed?

During the Global War on Terror, the Army built massive open burn pits to dispose of waste. I mean, it was everything from electrical equipment, chemicals, clothing, computers, and they would burn it all with jet fuel. And so we know from 911 that when you combine all those things and burn it with jet fuel, it creates terrible carcinogenic, horrible toxins. And for people who had to serve right near these burn pits, yhey were breathing in these toxins day after day, week after week, month after month. So even in New York, the 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum had many deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and burned it there were common. We know that service members would work, eat, sleep near these burn pits. They breathe in these toxins and come home with horrible cancers and respiratory diseases. Many of these service members are now sick and dying, but the VA keeps denying their claim. And so for any veteran of the War on Terror, this is basically their Agent Orange. Just as Congress passed legislation to protect people from Agent Orange, we will we will pass legislation to do the same it will be presumptive benefit at any veteran exposed to these toxins and fought in the War on Terror and were in any of these countries that had these  burn pits, they will be presumptively be covered.

Are burn pits still being used?

You know, they're not supposed to be used. They made a decision through the military not to use them anymore and started using incinerators instead. But I cannot guarantee you that there are no burn pits anywhere else in the world. Because other countries have burn pits, and don't have laws like we do in America. They're illegal in America. You couldn't, like, create a burn pit in your backyard and burn everything in your house. Like, you can't do that because it's so toxic. But it's not illegal in the whole world. So I can't guarantee there aren't any, but they're not supposed to be using them anymore.

So what's the status of the bill? Do you see this getting done in 2021?

I do. Right now I'm negotiating with Republicans to try to get a lead Republican sponsor. I have a couple of good members of the Armed Services committee that might provide that lead, so I'm working with them. And we hope to introduce it in the new Congress and get a vote on it sooner than later.

Just one more thing. You know, years before Rep. Stefanik was trying to get GOP women elected to Congress, you were doing much the same thing on the other side of the aisle. She had a very good election night, her super PAC did, of course, with getting some some candidates sent to Congress. I'm just wondering, does that leave you with mixed feelings at all, given the fact that you disagree with those candidates candidates politically?

I do think it's generally a good idea to have more women elected to Congress. And the reason why is women are often more collaborative, they're more often able to put their partisan politics by the door, and they're able to find common ground. So I think more women is always better than less women. I want more Democratic women because they share my values and my goals. But I think there's no downside with changing the makeup of Congress. I would like Congress to someday be 51% women, and I'm certainly gonna do my part through Off The Sidelines to elect as many of them as I can, as part of the Democratic Party.

Were you disappointed that the Democrats didn't have a better Election Day in the House and Senate?

So, you know, we did have a couple of victories that I was really excited about. Certainly having Senator Hickenlooper get elected in Colorado, to have Mark Kelly be elected in Arizona really makes a difference. And I think it's vital that we won those seats. I was disappointed that we lost a few others. But at the end of the day, winning two matters. And we only lost one, we lost Doug Jones. Sadly. He was such a great bright light. I hope he gets considered for a cabinet position because he really is a smart man who has a vision for the country. But we want a lot of House seats. And there was still a lot of seats that we won in 2018 that were very hard to win. They were in red and purple districts that we won reelection. So people like Lucy McBath won her re-lection and Lauren Underwood won her re-election. And those were close races. So we did keep the gains, largely, that we made in 2018, which was a new set of voters in different parts of the country and red and purple places that supported our candidates. So because we held on to those seats, I was actually really grateful. So we did OK, it wasn't as bad as some pundits like to say. We won more than we lost. And we held on some really key seats that were hard to hold on to.

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