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After infrastructure bill signing, Sen. Markey discusses Build Back Better, defense budget

Sen. Ed Markey
Josh Landes

It’s been a hectic fall for the Democratic Party. Despite controlling Congress and the White House, slow progress on keystone domestic agenda pieces like the sweeping Build Back Better bill have led to internal divisions and sinking approval ratings for President Joe Biden. This week, the party had opportunity to celebrate when Biden signed the $1 trillion infrastructure bill – passed with bipartisan support – on Monday. Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey spoke with WAMC Wednesday to explain how it will impact his constituents in Western Massachusetts.

Markey says the new law is years in the making.

“I've been on the Infrastructure Committee since the my first day in the Senate," he told WAMC. "And so just to begin with, there's going to be a $12 billion program over five years that can align very well with the goal – which I have, along with Congressman [Richard] Neal – to have a dramatically enhanced service for intercity passenger rail out in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. There's $9.1 billion which is going to absolutely go to the state of Massachusetts, $9.1 billion in funding for that can be used for East-West Rail. It can be used to expand high speed internet access across the Berkshires. It can help our communities in the Berkshire region to provide cleaner water for residents. They can also repair deficient bridges. Cities and in towns out in the Berkshires can apply for electric vehicle charging infrastructure stations. It won't just be urban, but it will be in other communities as well. And so all of that is right now passed into law. And now we've got to get to work to make sure that we make the applications so that the Berkshires get more than their fair share of this funding for all of these high priority objectives.”

With the passage of the social safety net and climate change focused $1.75 trillion Build Back Better bill still in question, Markey says he opposes the $778 billion defense bill before the Senate. In our conversation, he also reacted to Vermont Senator Pat Leahy’s retirement and much more.

MARKEY: Right now, we obviously have no cooperation by any Republican in the Senate to pass Build Back Better, to pass the President's plan for social programs and for climate change. No cooperation at all. So we have to find a way amongst all the Democrats, including Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, to produce a final package. And I'm confident that we can do that. I'm confident that a conversation between President Biden and Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema will ultimately bear fruit, that we will, in fact, be able to produce a package that matches the magnitude of our problems. I have several major programs inside of that legislation, upwards of $30 billion for a Civilian Climate Corps that will hire hundreds of thousands of young people to do the work to remediate the most severe consequences of climate change, and to model it upon the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s that President Roosevelt put in place. And these young people, they'll be given $15 an hour, health care, and an opportunity to partner with unions in their job training. So it's a wonderful program, and I'm very proud of it, it's in this legislation. I also have another program for about $30 billion as well for a climate bank. So that for example, the city of Pittsfield will be able to apply for super low interest loans, for example, just to redo the public housing stock to the highest possible energy efficiency levels. But for any project, including low cost community solar, all that would be funded through a climate bank, and any community out in Western Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, would be able to apply for that funding. And we'll also have tax breaks for 10 years for wind and solar, and all electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, for battery storage technologies, all of it available for communities out in the Berkshires. So I'm very enthused about this legislation from a climate perspective. And in addition, we have free pre-k for all three and four year olds in our country. We have a childcare tax break as well that's in here. And so as you look at the totality of this second bill, it almost fits the Berkshires perfectly terms of what the agenda is, what they would be seeking to accomplish for their communities, for their families.

WAMC: A lot of the headlines that have surrounded this process point to arguments internally in the Democratic Party, falling approval ratings for the President. How much is at stake here with actually getting the BBB from a concept into reality? Is a lot banking on this?

I'm very confident that we can do it. And as you're saying, it's very important that we get it done. And Democrats understand that. The whole country is looking to see whether or not we can pass something that deals with the climate crisis, that deals with the real needs of families in our country. None of that is in the infrastructure bill. This is a separate set of issues. Yes, we need to build roads and bridges and install internet. But we need more than that. We also need to invest in families, and we also need to mitigate the climate crisis. That's what the second bill is all about. Democrats understand that failure is not an option. We must be successful, and we will get it done and we'll put that bill on President Biden's desk.

At this point, what's that timeline look like? We've heard in the past of deadlines like Thanksgiving- Is that still an option at this point?

I'm wishing- [singing] I'm wishing for a green Christmas. I think we can get it done by Christmas. I'm very confident that we will be able to finish the package by then and I know that Democrats are committed to working together to accomplish that goal.

What was your reaction to hearing that [Vermont] Senator [Pat] Leahy will be will not be seeking reelection in the coming year?

Oh my goodness, what a great leader and historic leader and someone who is going to be missed. Now, I know that Peter Welch, who's my good friend, is now looking at that seat, who is a good Democratic congressman, the only congressman from Vermont, and Peter, as you know, is from Springfield, and went to Springfield Cathedral High School. So he'll have a good Western Mass orientation on that issue as well.

Any concern about that seat being vulnerable to a Republican effort?

Now, I'm very confident that Vermont is going to stay reliable in its affiliation with the Democratic Party, and I think [Senator] Bernie Sanders needs a great partner and that we'll be able to identify that partner and ensure that they get that they get elected in November of 2022.

Speaking of Senator Sanders, on Twitter, he was drawing attention to the size of the upcoming defense budget that will be before you in the Senate. Any thoughts on defense spending in the country at this point? I believe the number at this point is around $778 billion for the new bill.

My feeling is that much of the justification for the buildup of our defense budget is in fact the rising tensions with Russia and with China. It's imperative that we begin negotiations with those countries. It's imperative that we reduce the need for more nuclear weapons, for more missiles being built in our country so that we can instead deploy the technologies we need to fight the climate crisis, to invest in American families. So from my perspective, the defense budget is bloated. Bernie and I actually made an amendment last year to cut it by 10% on the Senate floor. We lost, and my feelings have not changed, okay? We need to take a different approach to the defense budget, and that involves going to the negotiating table with the Chinese and the Russians. And if we do that, we will eliminate the need for us to continue just to have a blank check that we hand over to the defense contractors in the Defense Department.

Senator Sanders has said he will not vote for the National Defense Authorization Act as it stands today. At this point, what are your plans for your vote on the bill?

Well, right now my inclination is to vote no. I think it's too big. I think that it just is almost a summary of the mistaken priorities that we have in our country. We're still struggling over whether or not we can fund $155 billion to fight the climate crisis while simultaneously having this bloated defense budget be saluted by too many members- And I would say, on a bipartisan basis. It's time for us just to change business as usual. We need funding for climate action, not weapons of annihilation.

This month, you joined Senator Elizabeth Warren in urging the President to pardon nonviolent marijuana offenders. Can you talk to me about why you chose to take that stance and break down what exactly was in the letter that you sent to President Joe Biden this month?

Well, we need to reverse the racist legacy of the failed war on drugs that has torn apart generations of Black, Brown, and low income communities. We need to expunge the records of those who have been charged with marijuana-related offenses, and we must understand that those charges fall disproportionately on Black and Brown people in our country. So it is absolutely imperative that we look back, we realize that we made a mistake, and then act accordingly. And that's what Senator Warren and [Oregon] Senator [Jeff] Merkley and I are calling upon President Biden to do, and it would make a world of difference for hundreds of thousands of millions of people who have that stain on their record. It should be expunged once and for all.

Now, you alluded to some of your climate based priorities and programs in the BBB agenda. Is the Green New Deal fully, in any way, a part of that package or do you think that that's not likely to happen during this term in Congress?

Well, the Green New Deal is in the DNA of the BBB. The 10-year tax breaks for wind and solar, all electric vehicles, the Civilian Climate Corps, the climate bank, the principles of jobs and justice and greenhouse gas reductions- It's all centered inside of the BBB as it was in the Green New Deal. But I'll also be honest, the BBB doesn't go far enough. We still have much more to do before we realize the full dream of the Green New Deal as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and I introduced it almost three years ago.

Today in The Boston Globe, an article was published about your social media allusion to Taylor Swift concerning the BBB this week. Can you speak to your familiarity with the pop star? Are you a fan, Senator?

Oh, I am a Swiftie for certain. And I think her new album, “All Too Well (Taylor's Version),” is absolutely a historical musical production. And so I'm proudly a Swiftie, and I appreciated the Boston Globe investigation to determine with eye-watering detail and overwhelming evidence that I am.

Truly investigative journalism at its finest.

I agree.

Lastly, any thoughts heading into Thanksgiving, Senator? it's obviously another holiday in the shadow of COVID-19. Any message to folks in the Bay State heading into the holiday?

I think it's important for us on Thanksgiving to remember the first Thanksgiving, and also to remember the Wampanoag, our Native American tribe in the United States that's oftentimes forgotten in terms of their history and the mistreatment that they suffered at the hands of the new arrivals from England. I think it's important for all of us to not only be grateful for the blessings on our own families, but also to realize the injustices that were that were inflicted upon the Wampanoag and others. And I'm also grateful that the science has evolved to a point with the breakthroughs by Moderna and Pfizer where this year it's possible for families to be together- But to also be careful, to be very safe, because we're seeing a spike in coronavirus once again. But at least with proper precautions, this year can be a Thanksgiving that's a lot different than last year's, and that gives us a lot to be grateful for.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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