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Rep. Richard Neal On Georgia Runoffs, Wednesday's Joint Session, Biden, Trump And Pelosi

Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal
Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal

All eyes will be on the U.S. Capitol Wednesday during the joint session to confirm President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. Republican allies of President Donald Trump say they will object to some of the results as Trump continues to falsely claim that he won the election. On Twitter today, Trump inaccurately wrote that outgoing Vice President Mike Pence “has the power to reject fraudulently chosen electors” when he oversees the session as Senate President.

Congressman Richard Neal, a Democrat from the 1st Massachusetts district who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, calls that “nonsense.” Neal spoke today with WAMC’s Ian Pickus about coronavirus relief, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s re-election, tonight’s Georgia Senate runoff elections, and tomorrow’s joint session.

What we’re adhering to, I hope, tomorrow is the principle that people decide elections. And clearly, former Vice President Biden has prevailed by more than 7 million votes in the last presidential election cycle, and to have this sort of chicanery foisted upon the American people, in an effort to subvert their will, is a terrible miscalculation.

There are members of Congress who say they will object, including Congresswoman Elise Stefanik from our listening area here in the 21st District in New York. Are you having conversations with any of those members about what they're thinking?

No. And I think what we've decided to do in the Democratic caucus is to point out the results of the election as opposed to the personality that's been involved in trying to gin people up about this. So there will not be many references made on the Democratic side to President Trump tomorrow. Our sole focus is going to be on the result of the election. We think that stands up under critical analysis.

President Trump tweeted today that Vice President Pence can overrule the electoral result if he sees fit. What's your response to that?

That's nonsense. And the vice president tomorrow has one responsibility according to the law, not the Constitution, but one responsibility according to the law. And that is to open the ballot, nothing more.

So what are your expectations for Wednesday? I mean, we clearly will have some objections, and that will open up debate. But at the end of the day, whenever that is, you know, Joe Biden is going to be certified once again as the incoming president, to your mind?

In 15 days, Joe Biden is going to take the oath of office as President of the United States. And notwithstanding anything that takes place tomorrow, that position on behalf of the American electorate will prevail.

What did you make of the op ed signed by the 10 living defense secretaries? Are you worried at all that President Trump might try to use military power in some way to not leave on the 20th?

Not really. I have great faith in our institutions. And I think that President Trump lost the election, the election was conducted with the world at watch and witness, and Joe Biden won. Period.

You have to come back after this, when President Biden is sworn in, and President Trump has gone and, you know, have a Congress for the next couple of years and get some big things done. Are you worried that it'll be difficult to do the day-to-day work of government, given the fact that the tensions are so high and that kind of thing following this election?

No, I think that there are large swaths of Republican members of the House and the Senate who are going to reject this impulsive decision that was only reached within the last week or so by some members of the Republican Party to contest the election. The election is over. Time to move on with governing. That's our primary responsibility.

What do you think happens in Georgia today, as we speak?

Well, that's hard to surmise. I think that I've been going through some numbers even as recently as this morning. And I think voter turnout is everything. Recall that we have as Democrats a lead in the early balloting; whether or not that will make up for those who can actually cast a ballot in person today remains to be seen.

How much of Biden's agenda can get done if Mitch McConnell is still in charge of the Senate following these runoffs?

Well, I do think that there are a lot of issues that Joe Biden can get done. He is an institutionalist by nature. And I think that certainly that working with the Democratic majority in the House and awaiting the decision of the people of Georgia today to determine the outcome in the Senate are two examples. But I think that Joe Biden demonstrated during his career in the United States Senate, that he has the ability to work with people across party lines, there are a lot of problems that are challenging and facing the nation right now. And I think that those of us who have institutional memory, we're gonna figure out how to get it done.

What would you say is your top priority for the 117th?

Well, I think expanding healthcare certainly going to is going to be part of it. I think addressing and combating and climate change is going to be another part of it. And I think immediately doable is the issue of infrastructure. We've talked about it now for more than a decade. Everybody acknowledges the problem. The House put out a pretty good measure last year, including work from the Ways and Means Committee and staff that I oversaw. And now I think that we have a good template to build upon. And as an act of good faith and goodwill. I think we should proceed almost immediately after Vice President Biden takes the oath to offer an infrastructure bill, that Democrats and Republicans alike can support.

Would you tie that to COVID relief, or would that be a separate concern?

I think that it's pretty likely because the Ways and Means Committee has written most of these COVID bills, including the CARES Act, the HEROES act, and what recently was passed, the $900 billion measure. And I think what's essential to remember here is that we're gonna need another round of support for the American people. You still have 19 million Americans collecting unemployment insurance, you have 8% of the American people who are currently unemployed, you have people that are behind in their rent and mortgage payments. And certainly I think that Joe Biden understands that. I've talked with Janet Yellen, the new Secretary of the Treasury, and the two of us agreed that there's likely to be another measure that will be embraced when this one expires, sometime around mid-March.

You were one of the few Democrats on the Hill that really had an open line to the Trump administration over the past four years, including Steve Mnuchin. As that era wraps up, how would you characterize your discussions over the past four years and what you might hope for, you know, with the Democrats coming back into power?

Well, actually, we did very well with unemployment insurance in the negotiation. We did very well with the retention tax credit, we did very well with making assistance to our hospitals available. We accomplished and negotiated the largest trade bill in American history, the USMCA. And I think that we were able to recommit to IRS enforcement as it relates to tax collection. So actually, the Ways and Means Committee and the democrats in the Congress, including the COVID bills, we did find, and I had a, I think a trusting relationship with Secretary Mnuchin. And we were able to accomplish some measures. Holyoke Hospital, we were able to work with Secretary Azar to secure an additional almost $12 million for Holyoke Hospital given their proximity to the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. And we got that done. So I think that there's plenty of room for developing the narrative. But there has to be equal emphasis on actually legislating. And I've tried very hard to do that.

Lastly, speaking of leadership, Nancy Pelosi has been reelected as Speaker for another term by the Democratic Conference. You have close contact with her, of course. Why did the Democrats stick with her? And what's her task over the next two years?

Well, I think she's been a very substantial legislator. I understand the role that outrage plays in our lives, but there's a corresponding responsibility, and that includes legislating. It’s legislating that changes our lives for the better. And I think in the case of Speaker Pelosi, and I was one of the individuals that helped carve together the strategy for her re-election, and I feel very strongly that she's been a masterful legislator. The Affordable Care Act is one notable example. But I think in addition to which, she has a very focused disposition in which you set your mind or doing something in a clock is where there's an element of disharmony from time to time. I think she seems to be the one who clearly can chart the path forward.

Is this her last term? Do you know?

Well, she has indicated that so we have to take her at her word.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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