It’s been a busy week in Washington, D.C. Lawmakers have heard from some of President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees for his Cabinet and they’ve also taken steps to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and the Armed Services Committees, New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen had the opportunity to question two of Trump’s nominees—Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State and James Mattis for Secretary of Defense—and she joined NHPR’s Peter Biello to talk about those hearings and other news of the week.
Let’s start by talking about former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson. You spoke with him last week, and then this week you had an opportunity to question him at his confirmation hearings. What concerns did you have about him before those hearings, if any, and did he ease those concerns at the hearing?
I was concerned about his ability to go from spending an entire career as the CEO of the biggest oil company in the world to a public service position as Secretary of State. While there are some similarities in terms of management, there are very big differences in terms of what the bottom line is.
I was encouraged yesterday by Mr. Tillerson’s commitment to continuing State Department programs to empower women. He talked about his time at Exxon, and what he had seen in terms of what economic development support can do to empower women. We know that when we do that, they tend to give back to their families and their communities in ways that are significant. I was pleased to hear him say that.
I found his responses on Russia and on human rights violations around the world much more troubling. He seemed unwilling to agree that we need to look at increasing sanctions, or having some kind of response to address Russia’s efforts to disrupt our election. He was unwilling, under questioning by Senator [Marco] Rubio of Florida, to condemn Russia’s actions or Russia’s bombing in Syria. Those are atrocities that have outraged the international community. He was also unwilling to condemn the actions of the President of the Philippines—the extra-judicial killings. I think some of those responses raised real questions about the position he would take as Secretary of State, and the position the new administration would take on human rights around the world.
Do you think he should be confirmed as Secretary of State?
I’m still evaluating that. We have some questions that we’ve put to him in writing (we’re allowed to do that). I’m waiting for those answers. I’m going to go back and reevaluate his answers on a number of issues. I ask him about the potential to work with moderate Muslim countries around the world in helping us fight ISIS, and he agreed that that was an opportunity we should take. He agreed that it doesn’t make sense to ban a whole religion like Muslims, as we’ve heard President-Elect Trump make statements about during his campaign. But he was unwilling to say that he didn’t think we should also ban Muslim registry, which is an effort to make all Muslims in this country register with the Federal Government. I think there are real questions about his position and I want to get more answers.
I’ll ask the same question of you about Secretary of Defense Nominee General James Mattis. What concerns did you have about him going into the hearings, and how did you feel about him afterward?
I think the big concern about General Mattis has less to do with his qualifications and his commitment on issues that I think are important to this country, and more to do with whether we should give a waiver of the law that prohibits people who leave the military from coming back into civilian service in less than seven years. I did vote for that waiver yesterday because I was convinced after talking to him at the hearing that he, as well as anybody, understands the importance of civilian control of our military.
I was also reassured by a number of responses that he gave on the threat that Russia poses to NATO, to the Euro-Atlantic community, and to Eastern Europe. He is committed to our partnerships and alliances like NATO. We had a very good exchange around the National Guard, because one of the challenges is getting active military guards in reserve the training and equipment they need to be able to deploy when we ask them to. That’s been an issue for our National Guard and he indicated that he would be committed to trying to address that.
So would you approve of his confirmation?
Yes, I do support General Mattis.
In other news this week, the Senate took a major step forward in clearing the path to repeal Obamacare. The vote on that initiative, along party lines, was that Democrats were not in favor of any step forward in repealing Obamacare. You’ve called the effort to repeal without a replacement “reckless” and you’ve called for a bipartisan effort to improve that law. What, in your view, should that effort look like?
First of all, I think it is irresponsible to repeal the law without any kind of replacement. It would throw the whole healthcare market into disarray. What happens to the 600,000 people in New Hampshire who have a preexisting condition, who don’t know if they are going to get thrown off of their healthcare, and who don’t know whether they’ll be able to get health insurance from another company if they’ve had that previous illness? What happens to the 26-year-olds who will no longer be able to get health care on their parents’ insurance? What happens to all those people in New Hampshire who are able, because of the Affordable Care Act, the expansion of Medicaid, and the New Hampshire Health Protection Plan, to now get treatment for their substance use disorder? We know that the heroin and opioid epidemic is a huge issue in New Hampshire. All of those questions are unanswered.
We’ve not been given a plan for what would replace it. We’ve not been told what the commitments are. We’ve heard a lot of comments from the President-Elect and from the Republican leadership in Congress about what’s wrong with the Affordable Care Act, but what we haven’t heard is what they are going to replace it with.
I think we can work together to make changes to the law. I’ve done that. I’ve worked with Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, to pass the only piece of bipartisan piece of legislation that affects the Affordable Care Act since we passed the law. It allows states to determine what the group size is for the insurance requirements under the Affordable Care Act. I know it can be done, and I think the better answer to repealing is to work together and to see how we can improve the law.
Also this week, Senator Shaheen, you were one of 10 Senators working on legislation to punish Russia over interference in U.S. elections. That bipartisan bill would impose mandatory visa bans and freeze the financial assets of anyone who carries out cyber-attacks against computer systems. How optimistic are you that such a bill would get anywhere given Republican control of Congress?
The good thing about the legislation is that it has an equal number of Republican co-sponsors as Democrats. So Senator McCain, Senator Graham, and three other Republicans have co-sponsored along with five Democrats. I think the list is growing.
Russia’s outrageous interference in our election is something that is a bipartisan issue. We should all be concerned about it. Russia’s been very open in their interest in undermining Western democracy. They have attacked Ukraine, they have attacked Georgia—countries that were moving towards Democratic institutions. And now they are trying to undermine elections. They did that in the United States and they’re working in Germany to do that. We have seen those news reports, and we can’t allow that to go unanswered. That’s what the sanctions legislation is about: taking aggressive action to let them know that they can’t get away with it.
Last question: Inauguration day is just a week away. What are your plans for Inauguration day?
I plan to attend the Inauguration. As a Senator, that’s my responsibility. I will be there next Friday with other members of Congress and other Senators to see the new President be sworn in and to listen to his opening address to the nation.