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Politics & Government

Sen. Kaine Weighs In On Obamacare And Russian Hacking Hearing

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's a really big week in Congress. The United States Senate plans hearings on many of President-elect Trump's choices for the Cabinet. As if that wasn't enough, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell plans an initial step toward repealing Obamacare, which leaves Democrats who are in the minority scrambling to put up a fight. We've reached one of those Democrats this morning. Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, who of course was Hillary Clinton's running mate during the late presidential campaign, now returns to the Senate. Senator, welcome back to the program.

TIM KAINE: Hey, Steve, great to be with you today.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about Obamacare first. The Republican plan here is to repeal that law right away and replace it with something else later. Mitch McConnell says he hopes not too much later. What's wrong with that?

KAINE: Well, you used the word the Republican plan, Steve. They don't have a plan. The repeal with no plan to replace on the table is jump off the cliff and we'll figure out how to land later. And groups like the Urban Institute say that a repeal with no obvious replacement plan would be a disaster. It would reduce health coverage for millions of people, would cause insurers to leave the market, would raise premiums. And because health care is one-sixth of the economy, injecting uncertainty into that aspect of the economy is going to create other problems too. They ought to put a plan on the table before they have a repeal.

INSKEEP: Although, of course, Republicans can say this is a huge priority. Our voters expect this of us. We need to get it done.

KAINE: Well - but we're talking about people's lives. Health care is not a game. It's life and death for people, whether they have health care or not. And that's why groups like the AMA, for example - last week, the AMA wrote a letter to Congress and said it would be absolute malpractice to have a vote on repeal until you have a plan on the table so people can compare it.

INSKEEP: Oh, you mean the American Medical Association.

KAINE: Yes, the American Medical Association. And the hospitals are saying the same thing. And a group of 14 of us Democrats, we wrote a letter to Republicans last week and said the same thing. We're very willing to sit down at the table and talk about reforms and improvements, ways to fix and make the law better. But once you cast a repeal vote, you're telling us you don't want to hear our opinion. Let's sit down and talk about that now before we before we hurt a lot of people and hurt the American economy.

INSKEEP: Now, there has been a little bit of dissent in the Republican caucus. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a state where a lot of people gained insurance under Obamacare, has said that he told President-elect Trump he wants to repeal and replace on the same day. And he contends that Trump said he agreed with that notion. But you still are in a situation where you, Democrats, are in the Senate minority dealing with this huge Republican priority of repealing Obamacare. What's your political strategy for changing how this turns out?

KAINE: Steve, what we've got to do is find a couple of Senate Republicans who agree with the American Medical Association who agree with what Donald Trump said on the trail, which is nobody is going to lose their insurance, we're going to make sure people have something that's better and that's cheaper. Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump's spokeswoman, repeated that claim last week - we don't want anybody, not one person, not one family, to lose their insurance. But if you do a repeal with no replacement, a lot of people are going to lose their insurance, and it's going to be real bad.

So we just have to keep reminding our Republican colleagues of the promise that Donald Trump made on the trail, that nobody would lose their insurance. And the 48 Democrats are rock solid unified on this. And over the course of the next few weeks, as we're talking to our constituents and sharing their stories, we hope we can convince a handful of Republicans to agree with us and then engage in a discussion about what are the necessary reforms.

INSKEEP: Senator Kaine, are you going to be able to successfully slow down or stop some of President-elect Trump's Cabinet choices, many of whom you're supposed to see in hearings this week?

KAINE: We have a - we do have an aggressive schedule of hearings. But over the weekend, Steven, as you know, the Office of Government Ethics put out a letter saying, look, the Trump Cabinet nominations, as a general rule, they're way behind earlier Cabinet secretaries in terms of complying with government ethics rules, filing financial reports, having the relevant background checks done on them. And those are the kinds of things that need to be done before these nominees are confirmed. And that is an independent government agency that basically said you can't rush this because the ethics issues are important.

You know, I think these people need to comply with ethics rules and that we need to have all the information about their finances just as we have in past situations. So I think that there is some likelihood we'd be able to slow down some of the process. Whether or not any will be stopped remains to be seen, and certainly not until after the hearings will we be able to comment on that.

INSKEEP: Can I ask about slowing down some of these choices?

KAINE: Yes.

INSKEEP: Because it's many members of the national security team coming up first - Jeff Sessions for attorney general, James Mattis at the Pentagon, I could go on for a little while here. Senate Republican John Cornyn said the other day - he's quoted in The New York Times. This is his quote (reading) this is a dangerous world we're living in and why in the world would we want to make it even more dangerous just to let our colleagues delay for delay's sake President-elect Trump getting to fill his Cabinet?

Now, let me ask you, Senator Kaine, if, as people on your side say, if you believe that President-elect Trump is totally unready for the job, totally unready for the foreign policy challenges, if that's true, isn't it actually a really good idea to hurry up getting his national security team in place to help him?

KAINE: Well, I've been meeting, in fact, the two - you mentioned Jeff Sessions and General Mattis. I've met with both of them, and so I'm doing what I can to be ready to act. There are six of the nominees that appear before me on the committees that I'm on. But when you have the Office of Government Ethics that say that these folks have not yet fully complied with the ethics rules surrounding Cabinet nominees, those rules are in place for a reason. It is important to have a functioning national security team, definitely, but when there are ethics rules in place and the judgment of an independent body is that some of these nominees have not yet met those requirements, that is not a minor matter.

INSKEEP: My understanding, though...

KAINE: Taking ethics seriously is important.

INSKEEP: My understanding, though, is that some of these folks, Rex Tillerson, for example, the secretary of state nominee, and several others have turned in their paperwork. It's not that all of them haven't turned in their paperwork.

KAINE: That's true. Yeah, that is true.

INSKEEP: Are you ready to move forward quickly on the ones who've turned in their paperwork?

KAINE: Look, on the - you know, when people have complied with those, I'm ready to move forward. That's why meeting with many of them in my office. I'm not negotiating the hearing schedule. But yeah, once people have complied with the rules, yeah, then we should be having hearings and moving forward. As you know, we haven't had any hearings yet, but we've just been back one week. You know, we - the new Senate was sworn in last Tuesday. We've been in for just three days, and we come back today. But yeah, you'll start to see - you will start to see hearings this week, I imagine.

INSKEEP: Could you see some Democrats supporting your colleague Jeff Sessions who you said you met with, the nominee for attorney general?

KAINE: I believe one Democrat has already announced that he is, and I think that - I believe Joe Manchin of West Virginia has announced that he is.

INSKEEP: How about you?

KAINE: I am not on the Judiciary Committee, and so I'm going to hold until after the committee has its hearing to make my determination because the hearing is really important. But there are some very important issues. Senator Sessions' records on the civil rights laws matter deeply to us. I was a civil rights lawyer for 17 years before I got into state politics. In addition, I do serve with Senator Sessions on armed services. He has had a different position than the vast majority of the Senate on the appropriate use of torture. We had a vote about a year ago about whether the Army field interrogation guide, which basically is the do's and don'ts of interrogation tactics, should be applied to every federal agency, including the CIA and others. Over 70 of us voted and said that it should, that the U.S. should have a strong anti-torture position. Jeff Sessions voted the other way, and that's something that is deeply important. And you'll see - I'm sure you'll see serious questioning about that at the hearing.

INSKEEP: Senator Kaine, one more thing to ask about here - a Russian influence in the election. Of course, the president-elect got his intelligence briefing on Friday on what the intelligence community believes happened, how they believe the Russians were behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and a broad influence campaign. Are you persuaded that the president-elect now takes this issue seriously?

KAINE: No, I'm not. The comments of his soon-to-be chief of staff, Reince Priebus, on news over the weekend suggests that they're still trying to minimize it. And, Steve, as you know, this was not just hacking of the Democratic National Committee. It was also hacking of numerous State Boards of Elections. This is a very serious thing, and I've said to my colleagues, remember what happened after the Watergate break in? It was a - it was a bungled attempt to rifle a file cabinet at the Democratic National Committee headquarters and plant some listening devices. But Congress took it very seriously in a bipartisan way. It didn't affect the outcome of the 1972 election. That was one of the biggest landslides in American history. But Congress cared enough about the integrity of our election process that they conducted one of the most searching investigations in the history of the body. They found out everything they needed to. And here where it's not just an attack on the DNC but also on State Board of Elections, I hope that Congress shows the same backbone, the same resolve and the same commitment to the integrity of our elections.

INSKEEP: Senator, I want to put one more thing on the table, very briefly here. Of course, President-elect Trump's team has said you're just trying to delegitimize his presidency. Democrats have responded no, no, no, no, we're not trying to do that. David Frum, a conservative who's been very critical of Trump, wrote this the other day. Quote, "the Trump supporters are 100 percent right. The information is delegitimizing." Does it, in a few seconds, delegitimize this president to have this information out there?

KAINE: That's not really the issue. The issue is should we...

INSKEEP: But does it or does it not?

KAINE: I have - I don't even - I'm not even thinking about that. Let's get to the bottom of it and then we can decide. But why would we not investigate it? Why does Donald Trump keep insisting on being Vladimir Putin's defense lawyer and trying to excuse Russian behavior or minimize it at the same time as he's attacking American intelligence.

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INSKEEP: That's Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.