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Official Portrait of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)
During the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte last week, I got the opportunity to join with my brother David Atkins, who writes at Digby's Hullabaloo, in interviewing Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. The Democrat from Rhode Island, who has put a special priority on defending earned benefits, talked with us about defending Social Security and Medicare, filibuster reform and how the Senate will handle the expiration of the Bush tax cuts.

David Atkins: At Hullabaloo, we've been covering a lot the of Simpson-Bowles issue and what's going on with Social Security. Clinton gave a speech last night and the only part that didn't resonate with the audience was that whole discussion of cuts to Medicare and Social Security. There's a lot of fear out there—obviously, a lot of people are paying attention to the election, but a lot of us are looking ahead of the election. Assuming Obama wins, which is a big assumption, but even if he doesn't, what happens during the lame duck session? There's a lot of fear that that would be used to sort of ram through unnecessary cuts to Social Security on the Simpson-Bowles template, and I was wondering what your plans were, and are we going to fight back on this? What is going to happen?

Sen. Whitehouse: I think that as a very general expression of a bipartisan and compromising way to deal with the debt and deficit problem that we have in this country, the Simpson-Bowles outline represents a pretty fair starting point. It has a fatal flaw in my estimation which that it rolls Social Security into the equation. Social Security has a $2 trillion surplus. It contributes virtually not at all to our national debt and deficit. It has long been kind of a bogeyman to the Republican Party that we have Social Security. They want to get rid of it, they want to privatize it, they never liked it. We cannot use this debt and deficit discussion as an excuse or vehicle to go after Social Security which is a separate discussion. It's sound until 2027, I think, at this point. It has got a huge surplus, and we need to make sure there is airspace between our debt and deficit discussion and Social Security. That's one of the reasons I helped found the Defending Social Security Caucus, and one of the things I think has happened in the Senate, not invisibly perhaps as it might have, but visibly to those of us who are there, setting Simpson-Bowles aside, the discussion about using Social Security to solve the deficit, has really gone away. And I think in part it's because I believe we're up to 30 senators who have signed on and said, "No way. No way. Not going to happen." And we make a blocking minority that makes that very difficult for the White House. They've backed off, everybody has backed off. And I think that's an important line. We have a success so far. But when you look at $2 trillion that Wall Street would love to get its hands on, and privatizing Social Security that Wall Street would love to do, this is a fight that's not going to go away. We're in a good position on it now, we should not give in, and we need to be alert really for the rest of our lives to protect against those efforts to encroach on it.

(Continue reading below the fold.)

David Atkins: So you would expect that that would probably not be successful if they try to roll that through during the lame duck session?

Sen. Whitehouse: They would have a colossal war with the vast majority of the Democratic caucus.

Dante Atkins: What are your thoughts on filibuster reform in the upcoming session? Obviously we're going to have a very very tight Senate, maybe 51-49, maybe 50-50 with a couple of independents. How do you expect that to go regarding potential rules changes in the upcoming term?

Sen. Whitehouse: I support filibuster reform. I'd be cautious about turning us into another House of Representatives and removing the filibuster entirely. But what has happened is that the filibuster has morphed from the old Jefferson Smith, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington filibuster, where you stand out on the floor, and your hair goes awry, you quote from the Bible, you quote from the Constitution, the wily old codger press guy is up in the gallery saying, "Down on the Senate floor, great expression of American democracy, one senator alone having their say." There was some excitement to it. Now the signal of a filibuster is the droning quorum call with nothing going on on the floor. And Republicans have moved from filibustering things that they hate and want to stop, to filibustering anything and everything, because each filibuster that they threaten requires the Majority Leader to knock out 30 hours of floor time for a cloture vote, and like bricks, you stack up those 30 hour bricks, and pretty soon you've taken away all the free time of the Senate to do any work. You do that 200 times as they did recently, 6,000 hours of Senate time gone, that's some pretty serious blockading. So that needs to be taken away, and I think you can do it by forcing—first of all limiting the filibuster to, if you're going to filibuster the motion to proceed to the bill, you shouldn't have a second right to filibuster again on the bill itself. So I think we can restrict that. But the key thing is that whoever is filibustering, the minority party is filibustering, they should have to control the floor. They should have to be out there making their case. If I'm going to have to filibuster to defend Social Security, if I'm going to have to filibuster on climate change, I don't mind getting out there on the Senate floor and making that case, and doing it the way it should be done. These filibusters in hiding, in which they don't come out on the floor, they don't defend anything, they just block for obstruction's sake, that is not a productive parliamentary vehicle. It's simply a timewaster and makes life difficult. They should change it.

David Atkins: Do you think that you would support that reform even if Democrats find themselves in the minority?

Sen. Whitehouse: Yes, I think we should. Because I think the institution of the Senate has been degraded by this new Republican filibuster strategy. I think we should reject it. And what it will require us to do if we need the filibuster, is we need to get ourselves out onto the floor. We need to stand on our desks, we need to take the time, we need to make the speeches, and think we're going to. And I think they should do that. They should be willing to when it's their turn. I'm comfortable with that, whichever way the Senate control falls.

Dante Atkins: If the Senate remains Democratic, do you expect Senate Democrats to hold the line on refusing to extend the Bush tax cuts for the upper income earners?

Sen. Whitehouse: I very much hope that we do, and I expect that we will. I think there is a relationship between how and whether we do that, and how and whether the president does that. If the president draws a strong line, I think he'll have the backing of enough Democratic senators that he won't be able to have a veto overridden. That puts him in a very strong negotiating position. And I think that he should take advantage of that, and call and ask for our support. I think if it becomes questionable whether or not the president will stick to his guns, then there are a considerable number of my colleagues, including those who might be up in 2014, who may have to take a more practical and defensive position so they're not out on this, and then undercut by a White House move later on. So I think that the support is there, but I would just have as my caveat that it has to be really clear from the White House that they're there with us, and they're not going to walk back and leave a lot of senators exposed on a position they're not willing to hold themselves.

David Atkins: In terms of the other major issue which is, of course, Medicare, I guess a lot of plans have come out and I'm surprised there hasn't been more of a push for raising the caps as opposed to making earned benefit cuts. What is going on there, and what do you expect to see happen during the lame duck session?

Sen. Whitehouse: Well, either in the lame duck session or assuming we do a continuing resolution in March when we have the sort of big budget discussion, I think those are issues that are going to be on the table. I'd love to raise the cap on Social Security, so that someone who is making $100 million isn't paying the same amount into Social Security as someone making $100,000. That just doesn't make to me any logical sense. If Social Security could use the support in way out years, why not get started now when it's an easier foundation to build?

I think the Medicare discussion is one that we need to grab a hold of and win. And we need to do two things: one is to point out that there's a difference between savings in the Medicare system that come from making a better health care system for people, and cutting people's benefits and giving them less access to the health care system. And there's a clear distinction between those two strategies, and the Republicans have worked very hard to blur those two, and to say that the $716 billion in savings in the Affordable Health Care Act is actually a cut. It's not. Unless you're a big insurance company or a provider. Then maybe it's a cut to you, but it's a signal to get more efficient and deliver the care better. And to kind of get that morphed into the plan for the Republicans to take Medicare and get it turned into a voucher program is something we've got to be really, really clear on. And the last point I would make, even though this gets a little bit techy and geeky, is that there really is a huge savings potential not in Medicare per se but in our health care system from better health care delivery, more primary care, more prevention, less administrative overhead, electronic health records, paying doctors for results and keeping patients healthy rather than procedures and treating them when they're sick, that whole arena of activity is estimated to saving between $700 billion a year and $1 trillion a year in American health care, and that needs to be a Democratic issue. That is how you bring down the cost of Medicare and veterans' care, and TriCare, and Blue Cross and United and all of it, in a way that people in the country can see difference in their lives in better care that costs less because you're not getting sick, you're not taking drugs that react badly with each other because nobody kept track that they do react badly with each other and you prescribe both of them. I mean, that's an arena we need to put light into and we need to own. It's good policy, it's innovation, it's high tech, it's all the things that we're for.

David and Dante Atkins: Thank you.

There are some very important key takeaways from Sen. Whitehouse's comments. First, any cuts to Social Security will be met in the Senate with "colossal war." That's good news. But what was very interesting to me was the senator's answer on the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. If President Obama is reelected and uses his veto threat to hold firm against extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest (and since in this scenario, he would no longer need to worry about reelection), then he will have enough Democratic senators on his side that his veto will not be overridden. On this issue, leadership will have to come from the White House, and the Senate will get the president's back.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Sep 16, 2012 at 07:30 PM PDT.

Also republished by Social Security Defenders.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Ending the Bush tax cuts will be huge (6+ / 0-)

    Perhaps some very rich people will move to other countries.  

    So be it. But the "trickle down" never worked so the rich have to pay whet they paid when we had a better economy.  That seems to work, paradoxically even for them.  Many of them not only don't understand paradoxes but they even deny facts.  We don't need them.

    When Obama lets the Bush tax cuts ride into the sunset, we will all be better of.

    And when the economy does well, and the deficit melts down, nobody will say stupidities about Social Security.

    Daily Kos an oasis of truth. Truth that leads to action.

    by Shockwave on Sun Sep 16, 2012 at 07:38:00 PM PDT

  •  A great senator (11+ / 0-)

    A real pro.  Wish we had 99 more.

  •  here's what bothers me (9+ / 0-)
    I think that as a very general expression of a bipartisan and compromising way to deal with the debt and deficit problem that we have in this country, the Simpson-Bowles outline represents a pretty fair starting point.
    Somehow Sinpson/Bowles has survived as a "fair starting point" even among supposed liberals. But IMO they really mean it's the starting point for democrats and we compromise from there to make it more palatable to the GOP/Teabaggers. Democrats did all the compromising to get to Simpson/Bowles in the first place, remember? I see more bad deals down the road even if we keep the senate.

    America could have chosen to be the worlds doctor, or grocer. We choose instead to be her policeman. pity

    by cacamp on Sun Sep 16, 2012 at 07:50:04 PM PDT

  •  Simpson Bowles (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Shockwave, Jeffersonian Democrat

    It has got a huge surplus, and we need to make sure there is airspace between our debt and deficit discussion and Social Security.

    The problem is our President is one who has been insisting on dragging Social Security into it.

    The Republicans, Speaker Boehner or Majority Leader Cantor did not call for Social Security cuts in the budget deal. The President of the United States called for that,” (John) Conyers, who has served in the House since 1965, said.
    ~
  •  This interview is very vauge. (5+ / 0-)

    The Senator says that Simpson-Bowles is fair.  The part about social security is...
    1. Raise the payroll tax.  Well, what really needs to be done is to lift the payroll cap so the richest can pay their fair share into the social insurance system.

    2.  Raise the age of retirement.  I would like to see the Senator declare unequivocally that as it is, 65 is already too old to ensure health care for Americans and that the age of eligibility would be lowered to age 52.  That is where negotiations for retirement should start.
    Just because we live longer does not mean that we are living stronger and healthier especially with our health care system.  The middle aged cannot get the jobs.

    Simpson-Bowls also cuts off student loan subsidies.  Reduces the federal workforce by 10% whether those jobs are essential or not.  Although, it does cut defense procurement by 15% and closes a third of foreign military bases.
    It gets rid of popular tax reductions.
    It opens the way to a public option for health care and seeks to standardize and make transparent health care costs.
    It would ding pensions of military personnel and federal workers.  

     

    •  Simpson-Bowles is horrible (3+ / 0-)

      Agreed: there is no good reason to cut Social Security, and it would be right both economically and morally to raise Social Security payouts.

      1) The average payout is only $1,200 per month.

      2) The people who get that money spend it.  It's a much better way to get the economy moving again than throwing more trillion$ at the banksters.
      ~

    •  The answers were vague but the picture... (0+ / 0-)

      is crystal clear.

      The democrats are going to slash benefits for the poor, elderly and children, scale back spending that makes social mobility possible(student loans, job training, etc.) and they're going to use it to protect bloated military spending and for even more tax cuts.

      It's the triumph of "Ryanism."
      And it's the democrats doing the legwork.

  •  Assuming Obama's re-elected (0+ / 0-)

    I think the likely scenario assuming a status quo obstructionist congress is the expiration of all the Bush tax cuts, even if only briefly, then we're talking passing the only game in town which is the Obama tax plan. I'm less hopeful of Democrats standing firm on defending the social safety net against cuts to pay for the 2008 Wall Street to the Caymans orgy.  

    "extravagant advantage for the few, ultimately depresses the many." FDR

    by Jim R on Sun Sep 16, 2012 at 08:29:18 PM PDT

  •  Whenever a politician complains about (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Jeffersonian Democrat

    Social Security you know that everything that follows, in fact everything that person "believes" in will be nothing but right wing batshit.

    In short, that person is trying to rob you and destroy your retirement in order to give tax breaks to his rich friends; it's as simple as that.

    "The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity." --W. B. Yeats

    by Pragmatus on Sun Sep 16, 2012 at 08:34:52 PM PDT

  •  it's great to have (0+ / 0-)

    some good questions asked, questions that are ones that I would like asked. Good job Dante. Much better than what's your favorite color type questions.

    music- the universal language

    by daveygodigaditch on Sun Sep 16, 2012 at 09:26:28 PM PDT

  •  Great questions, guys... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Jeffersonian Democrat

    I like Sen. Whitehouse a great deal but, I've gotta say, I'm disappointed to hear him say this:

    Sen. Whitehouse: I think that as a very general expression of a bipartisan and compromising way to deal with the debt and deficit problem that we have in this country, the Simpson-Bowles outline represents a pretty fair starting point. It has a fatal flaw in my estimation which that it rolls Social Security into the equation. Social Security has a $2 trillion surplus.
    Simpson/Bowles is not a good outline. It's a right-wing wishlist. And while I'm glad the Senate democrats are going to fight for Social Security, and maybe Medicare, it sounds like Medicaid is on the chopping block.

    And that's a real shame.

  •  why is the filibuster needed ? (0+ / 0-)

    why is it that a simple majority does not suffice ?
    why is it a problem if the senate "looks like" the house ?

    51 votes should be all it takes and Americans damn well better be paying attention to who they elect if they don't like the results of the 51 votes.

    the filibuster is nothing more than a tool to enable Kabuki.

    big badda boom : GRB 090423

    by squarewheel on Sun Sep 16, 2012 at 10:29:10 PM PDT

  •  thank you for giving me the term "earned benefits" (0+ / 0-)

    as an alternative to the popular "entitlements" description of SS.  I receive SSDI because I worked for 40 years and one consequence of my work was I became disabled before retirement age.  Disability is a direct consequence of work so I grow tired of having my accessing insurance benefits which my labor paid for being described as a handout from the government

  •  Regarding this (0+ / 0-)
    I think the Medicare discussion is one that we need to grab a hold of and win. And we need to do two things: one is to point out that there's a difference between savings in the Medicare system that come from making a better health care system for people, and cutting people's benefits and giving them less access to the health care system. And there's a clear distinction between those two strategies, and the Republicans have worked very hard to blur those two, and to say that the $716 billion in savings in the Affordable Health Care Act is actually a cut. It's not. Unless you're a big insurance company or a provider. Then maybe it's a cut to you, but it's a signal to get more efficient and deliver the care better.

    Sen Whitehouse staff's has put together a terrific study detailing the ways that certain health organizations have improved care delivery and how the ACA supports those efforts.

    Check it out

  •  What a sweet smile (0+ / 0-)

    Nice contrast to the Romney smirk.

    We're all pretty strange one way or another; some of us just hide it better. "Normal" is a dryer setting.

    by david78209 on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 06:01:27 AM PDT

  •  Senator Whitehouse (0+ / 0-)

    is one of the best 'climate hawks' in the U.S. Senate.  Would have been interesting, sigh, if you'd leveraged his comment re climate change and filibustering ... perhaps even to raise his perspective on the viability of the 'buzz' about using a carbon fee to offset retaining tax cuts as part of a path to avoid sequestration.

    Blogging regularly at Get Energy Smart NOW! for a sustainable energy future.

    by A Siegel on Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 06:52:58 AM PDT

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