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Washington Wednesday: Urgency and deliberation in the Senate

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WORLD Radio - Washington Wednesday: Urgency and deliberation in the Senate

Sen. Pete Ricketts of Nebraska talks about border reform, appropriations, and Republican disunity


Sen. Pete Ricketts, R-Neb. Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 31st of January, 2024. This is WORLD Radio and we thank you for listening. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up on The World and Everything in It: Washington Wednesday.

Last week, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell played up the benefits of a narrowly divided Senate and the prospect for compromise on the border.

MCCONELL: If this were not divided government, we wouldn’t have an opportunity to do anything about the border. In fact, I don’t think we’d get 60 votes for any border plan if we had a fully Republican government. So this is a unique opportunity where a divided government has given us an opportunity to get an outcome.

REICHARD: While some Republicans would prefer to pass reforms much tougher than the ones likely to be in the final deal, many are pleased to be doing something.

EICHER: One of those Republicans is Senator Pete Ricketts of Nebraska. Ricketts is a former governor of Nebraska, and he’s been in the Senate about a year now … filling the unexpired term of former Senator Ben Sasse

REICHARD: WORLD’s Washington Bureau reporter Carolina Lumetta interviewed the senator in his office on Capitol Hill. Here’s part of their conversation.

CAROLINA LUMETTA: ​​So talk me through some of just the highs and lows of the past year. How would you characterize your first year in this office?

SEN. PETE RICKETTS: Well, it’s learning a new job. And that’s a steep learning curve, especially in the U.S. Senate. You know, it’s different from being governor. So in the executive branch, you’re much more about running operations. It’s about urgency, getting things done right away. The legislative branch is slower. And the Senate, by design, is even slower than a regular legislative branch. And so it’s about committee meetings and hearings and writing legislation and writing letters and developing consensus. So you have to take maybe a little bit of a different perspective on how you’re doing your public service. But we deal with incredibly important issues. So for example, our border right now is an absolute catastrophe, and having the opportunity to weigh in on how we fix that, to be able to work with my colleagues on how we can get some legislation to really force the Biden administration to do something that they should have been doing all along. So that’s an example. You know, when we have 300,000 people come across in the month of December alone, that’s about the size of the city of Lincoln, right? That’s how many people are coming across our border, and mostly unvetted and released into our country. It is a huge national security risk. I get to be a part of solving that problem, and that that’s what makes this job exciting.

LUMETTA: You mentioned that the Senate is a slow process, and intentionally so and that makes sense. We don’t want new laws or new legislation just popping up that nobody gets a chance to see. But there’s also a sense that it is taking so long to fund the government, to address the border. So what’s your impression of kind of the push and pull of urgency versus being deliberate?

RICKETTS: Well, the system really is broken. And in part, the blame can be laid upon Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. We’re supposed to pass 12 appropriations bills every year to fund government, both in the House and in the Senate. Then they’re supposed to do a conference report, resolve differences, back to the House and Senate and ultimately to the President’s desk. The last time that worked was 1997. And Chuck Schumer, in particular, has had an opportunity this year to make it work right. And he’s refused to take it. All 12 bills for the first time in five years got passed out of the Senate Appropriations Committee - many of them unanimously, many of them with only a dissenting vote. And so these bills were all passed out in June and July. And yet, we didn’t start taking them up until October after the end of the fiscal year. In fact, we last voted on a package of three of these appropriations bills, three of the twelve on November 1st. And we have done nothing since then - over two months, where Chuck Schumer has not brought up a single appropriations bill to be voted on. Now, we can’t help what goes on on the House side, but we absolutely could take care of business on the Senate side, and Chuck Schumer is not even bringing these bills up for a vote. Now, there are things we could do to reform this process to make the system work better. But if you have a leader like Chuck Schumer, who is not going to do his job, who was not going to bring these bills up. That’s why we get the broken process that we have. So there is lots of opportunities to improve things around here. But part of it is we have, Republicans have got to get the majority so we can start making a difference here.

LUMETTA: In terms of internal politics, too, a lot of stories that I’ve covered over the past year have been a lot of, at least from the perception of the rest of the country, is Republicans fighting with each other. Do you think the Republican Party is at this inflection point that they need to start unifying or they’re just going to keep splintering?

RICKETTS: Well, first of all, you always want people to present differing points of view. Because you don’t want to get into this idea of groupthink, where nobody questions what you’re trying to do, and you make a mistake. The famous example is the Bay of Pigs invasion, when nobody wanted to tell President Kennedy it was a bad idea, and they went forward with it, and it was a disaster. So you want people to question ideas. The problem is not how you’re fighting, but also, how you do it. Like, can you, can you have those disagreements and still remain a unified caucus, and that’s what I think we have to focus on as Republicans and understand we’re gonna have differences, and sometimes I’m just not going to vote with my Republican colleagues and vice versa. But we want people to bring up alternatives, because that’s how you get better ideas. I think, frankly, the way Republicans see how to run the country is going to be best for the long term health of our nation, because we are focused on how can we be economically sustainable, right? We can’t just continue to spend money like we have been, and think it’s not going to have an effect. It will. It’s, we’re burdening our great-grandchildren with debt they will never hope to pay off, and that will undermine our national security, it’s going to ruin our economy. Those are the things that, you know, I think Republicans, keep Republicans up at night. We’ve got to have a strong defense, to be able to make sure that we have a safe country. We’ve got to have a strong border, because a country without a border isn’t a country. And I think those are things that we have to continue to keep, as you know, the top level goals. And if we do that we may disagree on how to get there for a lot of those things. But if we can stay focused on those big picture goals for what we need to accomplish in this country, we'll be successful as a party.

LUMETTA: What about bipartisan work? Is there room for that in today’s Congress?

RICKETTS: Well, in fact, that’s the only way to get things done in the Senate, right? Because you need 60 votes to get anything done, and the Democrats only have 51. So, now there are some things, some things they can do to kind of get around that occasionally. But by and large, if you want to get a bill passed, you have to have 60 votes. And that’s where, you know, for example, if you look at my Flex Fuel Fairness Act, I’m doing that with Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, to be able to get that passed.

LUMETTA: And lastly, any predictions for 2024?

RICKETTS: It is going to be a very tumultuous year as far as our own internal politics; I don’t see the country getting less polarized. And just in general, it’s going to be a very dangerous time in the world. And we can already see that. And frankly, again, I’ll lay the blame primarily at the foot of President Biden for being so weak in his appeasement-first foreign policy. But obviously, we’ve got the ongoing war with Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine. We’ve got the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel on October 7, we’ve seen Iran attacking our people, our soldiers in Syria and Iraq, we see the Houthis attacking commercial shipping in the Red Sea. We see China being more and more belligerent with every passing day, threatening to take Taiwan by force. I mean, it’s going to be a very dangerous time in the world this year and really, for the foreseeable future, which is why it’s important that we get some of these policy issues right.

LUMETTA: Great. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

RICKETTS: Yep. My pleasure. Thanks for coming in.

REICHARD: That was Senator Pete Ricketts of Nebraska speaking with Washington Bureau Reporter, Carolina Lumetta.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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