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Sen. Gillibrand on Sen. Manchin, paid leave, the filibuster, military justice, and New York's 2022 race for governor

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand
Pat Bradley/WAMC
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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

Democrats in Washington are vowing to press ahead with a possible vote this week on President Joe Biden scaled down Build Back Better package, now carrying a $1.75 trillion price tag.

It comes after West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin said Monday it's time to vote on the infrastructure bill instead, which was seen as a signal that the key moderate is wavering on the larger package.

One person who's been speaking regularly with Manchin is New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who joins us now to talk about the White House's priority bill and more.

As we speak, what do you hear about the state of talks? What's in the bill? And what isn’t?

I think the bill’s in very strong shape, it is intended to really lower costs for working Americans. It addresses problems that families have had paying for childcare, making it more affordable, making sure we get more kids into Universal pre-K. We also address problems people have had affording housing. It also addresses things like clean air and clean water and making sure that we have money to create resiliency when we get the floods and the other severe weather we've had because of climate change. So the bill is strong. It's a good way to help build back the economy for everybody. And I'm actually optimistic that we are going to get it done in the next few weeks.

So not this week, but a few weeks.

I'm hoping we get it done before Thanksgiving.

In your conversations with Senator Manchin, what does he want?

So I have not been talking to Senator Manchin about the larger investment in the economy, I've just been speaking to him specifically about paid leave, because it's something that he has said he's for, but he has had a lot of questions about what it would look like and what it would cover and how we pay for it. And so I've been trying to give him information and guidance about what a universal paid leave plan would look like. We'd want it to cover all workers, for all family needs, whether it's a new baby or a dying parent or a sick family member, we'd want it for those family emergencies that we just saw during COVID over the last year and a half, for example, when schools closed or when daycare centers shut down or when a family member got COVID and had to stay home and someone needed to look after them. Those were the kinds of things that we'd really want a national paid leave plan to have, to be able to cover.

But as we speak here, on Tuesday, it's out of the bill, as far as I understand.

Yes, it's not in the bill today. But the ink is not yet dry on this bill. And it's not been voted on yet. So there's still time to negotiate. And since Senator Manchin has told me that he will maintain an open mind, and this is something that I know will also get a lot of Americans back to work. It's important. Also, we saw the pandemic result in 5 million women losing their jobs. 2.5 million still out of work. So we need to get all workers back to work. And one way to do that is to have a robust national paid leave plan.

Would you vote on a final package that didn't include it?

I would. I think the other investments of affordable daycare and universal pre K and addressing affordable housing and money for clean air and clean water, especially with the PFOA problems we have in New York, and PFAS problems as well as the flooding we've seen across New York state. We need those resources to help build our communities back. And that's what this bill is all about.

How does this federal idea differ from what Governor Hochul did this week expanding New York state's paid family leave program?

So Governor Hochul is following through on her promise to deliver a robust paid leave plan to every worker in New York State. And she's recognizing through this change that families are very, very different. A caregiver may well be your sister or brother, they may be your only family member alive. Your parents may not still be alive, your children may not be there or you might not have any. And so having caregivers to look after you when you're sick or very ill, or again, to make sure anyone could be a parent. Those are important things. And so what she did was expand appropriate caregivers to include your siblings. So if my parents were still alive, and I became very ill, you know, maybe my sister would be the one who would care for me in my time of need.

Let me turn back to Senator Manchin just for one more moment. The reason that his vote and people like him, Senator Sinema from Arizona, the reason they have so much clout at the moment is because the Senate is split by a razor here with the Democrats holding the tie-breaker, and your party is trying to get this Build Back Better agenda through using reconciliation, which would not require the 60-vote threshold. So the question is, is now the time to do away with the filibuster, thereby allowing you a different path to get priorities like this through?

I support getting rid of the filibuster, because the purpose of keeping the filibuster in place is to prevent bad things from happening when you're not in charge. But the truth is, those bad things are happening right now, even though we have the majority. We have Republican right wing legislatures all across America undermining people's rights to vote, the ability to actually just vote and be heard and be counted and have civil liberties, is being undermined all across the country.

Right wing legislatures and governors are taking away women's reproductive freedom, to have that basic civil right and civil liberty just to decide when and how many children a woman wants to have. And we saw states and governors again upending basic clean air clean water rules and regulations. So the bad things are already happening. And so given that, I think now is the time to eliminate the filibuster to start passing laws that protect our voting rights, that protect our clean air, clean water and that accomplish other things that are really important for the country, like lowering prescription drug costs and making sure families can afford health care, those kinds of reforms we should be able to do with a majority vote.

How come it hasn't gone away yet?

Well, we have some moderate members of our caucus that are reluctant to eliminate the filibuster, including Senators Sinema and Senator Manchin.

You recently wrote to the Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to say that the Pentagon's proposed timeline to implement changes to how the military is dealing with issues like sexual harassment and sexual assault is too slow. What's the problem?

So I've been working for almost a decade on this idea that for members of the military, they are unfortunately, subjected to sexual assault too often. And when that happens, the rate of cases that go to trial and then didn't conviction are too rare. And so we've been trying to reform the military justice system. This president, President Biden, has asked the Secretary of Defense, Secretary Austin, to do a deep dive about sexual assault harassment, and that deep dive review said that those crimes should be taken out of the chain of command, and given to trained military prosecutors to prosecute and decide whether these crimes have been committed.

The military's accepted that recommendation, but they now want eight years to implement it, which is outrageous and absurd. Those reforms can be implemented today. We already have enough prosecutors within the military, there's already enough senior prosecutors in the military. And I don't think that reform goes far enough, because we should be eliminating all serious crimes except for military crimes from the chain of command and given directly to those trained military prosecutors so that they can make independent judgments that are unbiased and result in more convictions.

What's the military's explanation for why it needs eight years?

They just say they need eight years because it's a big change. But I think they're just slow walking it.

Have you gotten a response from the administration or Secretary Austin?

No, I have not received anything. And I have asked for an answer by November 30. So hopefully, they will give me their reasoning for requiring eight years to do a simple change.

Is there something you can do if the military just declines to change that timeline?

Yes, I mean, we can mandate that these changes are implemented in a certain amount of time in the defense bill itself. But we've had a GAO study done recently, that said, over the last eight years, we put in place almost 250 different changes to the military justice system. And it's said that something like almost a third of them, especially those related to prevention, have never been implemented. So they do slow walk things they don't want to do. And they do ignore the Congress that is supposed to be their overseeing body. So they do ignore us and it's pretty outrageous, but it's something the president certainly can enforce. He's the Commander in Chief. And this is something that President Biden has said he is very eager to get done. So I'm hopeful that with the president's oversight, that they will not ignore this law when it does get passed and signed into law by the president.

We're speaking on Election Day. I know from your social media account that you voted by absentee ballot. So your ballot’s already in. I'm curious, how did you vote on the statewide ballot questions this year?

Well, I don't talk about how I vote. Because I think that's fairly personal. But—

I mean, sometimes you endorse candidates and campaign for them.

Yeah, I still think it's pretty private, but I will tell you, I voted yes.

OK. Thank you. On all five?

I voted yes.

As we speak, we're learning more just about by the day, about how President Trump and his allies worked to overturn the 2020 election results using extraordinary measures. What would you like to see Congress do on the issue of voting rights ahead of the 2022 and 2024 elections?

I support the Voting Rights Act view bills that we've put forward HR1 and S1, I authored parts of it with John Lewis, to protect voting rights to make it easier to vote, not harder. And so Senator Manchin’s worked on a compromise version of that bill, which I also support. So I think we need to protect voting rights across the board, and I will vote on any measure put forward by the Democrats to protect those voting rights that's commensurate with the bill that I authored and other bills that have been moved forward.

In terms of the presidential election, there were efforts or at least discussions among Trump's team about throwing out state results and sending in alternate slates of electors who would vote for Trump despite him having lost their states. Is there anything that Congress should be doing to avoid a situation like that from happening in 2024?

Yes, I think that proposal by President Trump is a definition of voter fraud. So I think we should definitely avoid changing the election results by people who are partisans. So I really think we have to protect voting rights by passing our legislation.

As we speak, we don't know what will happen with the gubernatorial race in Virginia, but it's very close. It's being seen as a harbinger for 2022. Do you take any meaning from the outcome of the Virginia race?

No, I don't. I think that every race has its own dynamics. And every state has its own climate. And there's its own concerns about what candidates are running. So I do not take it one way or the other. I think all the races will be very tight in 2022. So I think we are going to have to campaign on what we're for and what we have been trying to put into law in this agenda of President Biden's, to build the country back stronger, better and getting more workers back to work. I think people want to see costs lower, they want to know they can afford things. They're worried about inflation. They want to be able to afford daycare and childcare. They want to be able to send their kids to good schools, they want to be able to get better jobs and that earn more money, and they want to be able to afford their health care. So these are the issues that we are trying to make a difference on. And these are the issues we will be judged on in 2022.

Last question, New York State Attorney General Tish James has launched a bid for Governor next year, as was widely expected. Have you decided whether you will support James or Gov. Hochul or somebody else?

I won't get involved in the actual race for governor. But in the meantime, I'm certainly going to support our elected leaders as they are our standing governor. I will help as much as I can, as I will help all of our elected leaders. But as far as the political campaign race is concerned, I will I will stay out of it.

So you won't make any endorsements before the primary next June.

I don't expect to.

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