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Congressional Corner With Chris Murphy

Senator Chris Murphy
Public Domain

A former Northeast governor is remaking himself as a Senator from the Mountain West.

In today’s Congressional Corner, Connecticut U.S. Senator Chris Murphy wraps up his conversation with WAMC’s Alan Chartock.

This interview was recorded April 27.

Alan Chartock: Senator Chris Murphy is with us from Connecticut, a guy who is a big favorite of the people who listen to this station. And I hear about it all the time. Chris, in a previous session you and I were talking, you talked about, you know, Mitt Romney, and you said, Mitt Romney, and you had done a bill. Mitt Romney has shown a great deal of courage, it seems to me in his approach to this president. Do you think he’s sad that he did it?

Senator Chris Murphy: No. Listen, I think Mitt Romney, who I've gotten to know very well over the last couple of years is somebody that understands his legacy. And he believes that the President committed crimes that are worthy of removal. And I think his belief was that if Congress were to effectively endorse the president's behavior, then there was nothing stopping previous presidents from using the massive powers of the Oval Office in order to protect themselves politically. And if that becomes the norm, then you really aren't living in a democracy any longer. I think Senator Romney knew he was going to pay a short term political price for opposing a president who has a 95% approval rating within the Republican Party. But I think that's not really the measure that he cares about. Mitt has a real sort of internal sense of right and wrong. He's got a compass that guides him. And I think that's what matters to him and, frankly, is a reminder to the rest of us that when our friends or our political allies do something we think is wrong, we should be listening to that compass as well.

Senator Murphy, let me ask you this. Is he I'm sure you've read John F. Kennedy's book. Is he a profile in courage? Is Mitt Romney?

He is a profile in courage you know, I was in chamber when he gave that speech. There were only a handful of us. I was in the chamber because I had given my speech announcing my vote on impeachment right before Senator Romney's. And coincidentally, in my speech, what I said was that, you know, I wonder what I would do if it was a president of my party that had committed the acts that Donald Trump committed, and that I think I know the answer to that question, but I have to be honest, that I'm not sure. And then as soon as I'm done, Mitt Romney gets up and gives this speech, essentially, you know, answering that question that it is possible for a member of the president's party to call out his actions as wrong. It's not that hard to stand up to the president of an opposite political party. It's not that hard to criticize your opponents. What's the hardest thing in the world in politics is to stand up alone, against your friends, against your political allies. And, you know, I think what he did that day is going to be remembered for a really long time.

You have a bill with Senator Brian Schatz that would force the president to use the Defense Production Act to help with the coronavirus response. How did you decide that you and Schatz should get together on that?

Well, this is really one of the most egregious acts of this administration. The one thing that states can't do by themselves is source critical medical equipment. Because we don't run global supply chains on a state by state basis. There may be enough reagent out there to do all of the tests that we need, but it exists in places that's really hard for the state of Connecticut to find. The federal government is the only entity that really can do a broad survey of where all of the manufacturing capacity is, where all of the production capacity is, and organize it in a way that gets what we need to the hotspots, the masks the face shields, the tests, the ventilators. And in fact, Congress gave the president the power to do this. We wrote a piece of legislation decades ago called the Defense Production Act. And what it says is that in times of crisis, the president can essentially take over the manufacturing and distribution of critical supplies. The President has refused to operationalize the Defense Production Act. He’s refused to use the powers given to him by statute. And what is left is a sort of chaotic “Lord of the Flies” like supply system in which no state is getting what they need. And so our piece of legislation would require the president to use the Defense Production Act to make and distribute all of the critical medical equipment that we need and right now probably the thing we need the most of is tests, and testing machines, and testing equipment

If Joe Biden is elected president and calls on you for a major position, maybe Secretary of State something like that, would you consider leaving the Senate in order to do that?

I've never really considered leaving the Senate. You and I talked about the fact that a couple of years ago, my name would occasionally show up on these lists of people that might run for higher office. I guess I've come to love this job. I think I can make a tremendous difference both for my state and nationally in the Senate, especially on the issues that I spend a lot of time working on, like gun violence, and healthcare, and foreign policy. So I really have never thought about leaving the Senate since I got there. And obviously, I'd be flattered if anybody made me an offer to serve in an administration, but it's not something that I've given a ton of thought to.

Yeah, well, I hope you don't. I like it where you are. You're doing a great job. It's so so so. So here's my next question, you have a bill, another bill with Senator Romney, Mitt Romney to establish a global health security interagency review council. What is that?

So one of the mistakes that President Trump made of many is that he had an outfit in the National Security Council that was charged with one task, and one task only, looking for potential pandemics and then arranging all of our national security tools in a way that stopped them before they got to the United States. President Trump for some reason, stood that that office down. He just disbanded it. And so we had nobody in the National Security Council whose job it was to look out for early pandemics. Had we had that capacity in the National Security Council, maybe we would have been taking, well I think we would have been taking earlier steps to address coronavirus before it got to the United States. Senator Romney and I have put in legislation that would reestablish that capacity at the National Security Council. And we think this is one of the first steps that Congress should take. The president could do it himself, but he has been unwilling to do that and be, you know, it's unclear on a daily basis, who's actually in charge of the Coronavirus response. Is it? Mike Pence? Is it Jared Kushner? Is it Deborah Birx? We need a permanent structure housed in the White House that's in charge of dealing with pandemics and potential pandemics. And that's what Senator Romney and I are seeking to do with this legislation.

Okay, so now let me let me ask you this. What do you now make of the 2020 presidential race? Where should Joe Biden be, what should he be doing right now? I'm getting mail saying he's not out there enough. He's hiding in his basement. He should be doing, showing more. And I say, well, according to all the polls, he's doing pretty well. What do you say?

Well, I mean, first and foremost, I mean, I think that Vice President Biden understands that, you know, our priority right now is not political. Right, our priority right now is to beat this virus and get the economy back up and open. And so, you know, as a patriotic American, he's doing the right thing for the country, which means he's, you know, not out there running a conventional political campaign today. He's making sure that the response being led by governors is the priority right now, as you said, you know, he doesn't have to do a lot because every day that the president is out there running these press conferences, he's losing support. He's frankly making Joe Biden’s case for him. But I wouldn't advise Vice President Biden to do anything differently than what he's doing right now. He needs to sort of step back and let the response to this crisis be the dominating news story, and frankly, there'll be plenty of time for him to run a conventional campaign once the late summer and fall arrives.

I have one more question. I know we're out of time. But if you I'm sure you have some thoughts on this. Who do you want him, would you advise him? Let's put it that way. Who would you advise him to pick as his vice presidential candidate?

Yeah, I certainly wouldn't advise him publicly on that. I think it's important that he chooses somebody with experience, somebody that's battle-tested. I think what Americans are going to be looking for, having watched the failings of this unprepared president, is a team that's ready to jump in and respond to a crisis if another one occurs. I also, you know, don't think that the election is going to be a referendum on the vice presidential candidates. Ultimately, this election is going to be dominated by one huge hulking personality, and that is the president of the United States. It is going to be ultimately a referendum on him and his disastrous four years in office. So he should make the right choice, but I don't think any of us should overanalyze how important that choice will be when it comes to the decisions that general election voters make.

United States Senator Chris Murphy, thank you so much for spending all this time. I know how valuable it is, and we really appreciate it. And as I've said, 100 times, people really like it. They call in and they say when’s Chris Murphy gonna be on again? So thanks so much for being with us. So appreciated.

Always great to talk to you. Thanks Alan.

Dr. Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the University at Albany. He hosts the weekly Capitol Connection series, heard on public radio stations around New York. The program, for almost 12 years, highlighted interviews with Governor Mario Cuomo and now continues with conversations with state political leaders. Dr. Chartock also appears each week on The Media Project and The Roundtable and offers commentary on Morning Edition, weekdays at 7:40 a.m.