Newly-minted U.S. Sen. Chris Coons recently caught up with the Community News to discuss his initial impressions of his new life in Washington.
It hasn’t even been three weeks, but newly-minted U.S. Sen. Chris Coons already has plenty to say about his time in Washington. Because Coons’ victory came in a special election to fill out the final four years of Vice President Joe Biden’s term, he currently holds the unfortunate distinction of being the 99th ranking senator. (He was number 100 until Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk was sworn in Nov. 29.) In the short term, that’s meant a lot of grunt work, like spending several hours per week presiding over the senate. But come January, when the other newly-elected senators get to Washington, Coons will move up to 85th and will be able to focus more on his legislative agenda.
Coons recently caught up with the Community News to discuss his initial impressions of his new life in Washington.
Q At the outset of your campaign, most agreed that you were an underdog against Congressman Mike Castle. At what point on the campaign trail did you realistically say to yourself “I could be a U.S. senator.”
A It was the beginning of February … My wife and I spent a week talking with our kids, reflecting, praying on it, calling some friends and supporters, and I was convinced from the very beginning that as long as I stayed focused on the issues that mattered to Delawareans, on jobs on tackling the debt and deficit, and on finding bi-partisan solutions to our economy that it was a winnable race. I knew from the outset it would be uphill. I know Congressman Castle well, but I believed it was possible that I would win. But obviously the primary on Sept. 14 changed my opponent and also the political handicapping, but it didn’t change the issues I was focused on, it didn’t change my work ethic and it didn’t really change my optimism about the possibility of winning.
Q As county executive, you spent some time in Washington over the years lobbying the federal delegation and attending various events, but what are your impressions now that you’re there working every day?
A It is more sharply divided than even I had realized. The fairly sharp partisan divides of the last two years are more enduring and deeper divides than I had realized. Delaware is a small state, it’s a state of neighbors. Folks work well together and we have a tradition of bi-partisanship and as I’ve gotten to know some newly-elected members of the house and senate and I’ve talked to some departing members of the senate in particular, and they’re very dismayed about the divisiveness and how the process has changed. This year, none of the 12 appropriations bills have made it through the senate yet and we are months into the new federal fiscal year. There are dozens and dozens of federal appointments, both senior administration positions and judges that have been held up for months. The lack of any real progress on any budget issues, appointments and national security issues is something you can kind of read about in the abstract, but to be in the room with folks who are fighting over it just makes it more real, more concrete.
Q You and your opponent Christine O’Donnell found little common ground on issues on the campaign trail. Yet many of the incoming Republican legislators you are making it a point to meet with are very much cut from the same ideological cloth. What makes you think you can find common ground with them and on what issues are you most optimistic?
A What gives me some hope is that up and down the state of Delaware as I listened to voters over the last month that we work together, that we find common sense solutions and that we make progress and I hope that other newly-elected members of the Congress have gotten the same message from there own states. I did have a chance to sit with [Kentucky Republican] Rand Paul and [Florida Republican] Marco Rubio and their spouses along with a dozen of the other newly-elected senators who will be sworn-in in January… You’re right, those folks in particular tend to be from the same perspective [as O’Donnell], sort of the Tea Party perspective, but I’m going to make an effort and try learn about them and their states and their issues and try to be as welcoming as I can, but I’m not going to compromise the principals that I ran on or the issues I think matter to Delawareans. I do think one of our core values as a state is that we want people who are willing to work together… I think you have to start by just being willing to meet people where they are, listen to them and get to know them a little bit before you jump to any conclusions.
Q The first piece of legislation you co-sponsored is the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which everyone agreed is vitally important but couldn’t get resolved. What hope do you have that things will be different this time around?
A It is my hope that we will find common ground on national security and on caring for our first responders, but I’ll say this as far as the debate over the Stark Treaty [which deals with nuclear proliferation]: I’m on both the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees and in the debate this past week there were some sharp divisions in the Republican caucus. [Indiana Republican] Sen. Dick Lugar, if I’m not mistaken, called out and challenged [Arizona Republican] Sen. Jon Kyl saying that he felt he was playing politics with an issue that many Republican former secretaries of defense, former secretaries of state and former national security advisors, had all testified in support of. The reality is we need to come to some resolution on these issues, whether it’s how we care for 9/11 responders and volunteers, to how we secure our nuclear future and how we make our country safer, and how we move forward on our economy. But here’s the positive, there are Republicans who are willing to work together in a bi-partisan way and I’ve had some good initial conversations with many of them. The challenge is that in many states, the outcome of the primary and outcome of the general election has sent to Washington folks who are more conservative and who are more determined to prevent [progress].
Q In your terms, what would make this a successful lame duck session of Congress?
A The most important issue on which we need to deliver is on predictability for families and for businesses on our tax policy. We have a very tough vote to cast as a Congress on the future of the tax rates for business, for families on everything from income to capital investment to research and development. A whole package of tax breaks that were passed a decade ago will expire on Dec. 31 if we don’t take responsible bi-partisan action and in my view, we need to pay down the deficit, we need to jumpstart the economy and we need to provide tax incentives and we need to do all three and I think both sides are going to have to give a little to find a common-sense solution for this challenge.
Q Technically speaking, you’re filling Vice President Biden’s seat and serving out the remainder of his term, but that seat was occupied for the last two years by Ted Kaufman. What have you learned about Kaufman and his service from your senate colleagues?
A Sen. Kaufman stepped into this seat among the best-prepared interim senators in American history because as someone who had served as Sen. Biden’s chief of staff for decades, he knew the personalities, he knew the rules and the he knew the challenges that were facing the senate. He was well regarded on both sides of the aisle and I’ve heard from lots of folks who I’ve just met in my first week how well the regarded him and how much he’ll be missed.
Q Have you made any decisions with regard to your staff?
A Most of the folks who were serving for Sen. Kaufman have agreed to hold over through the lame duck so I’ve got staff in Washington and in Wilmington and I’ve taken over Sen. Kaufman’s offices, so at least the phone numbers are the same. Most of the people are the same and are staying on through the end of the year, which has been a great blessing and I now have an opportunity to go through the process and look at who from the county, who from the campaign, who from the incumbent staff and who else … will make the best team going forward.
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