2012-12-06 / News

Sen. Whitehouse to focus on middle class

Democrat joins Jack Reed at Capitol in Washington

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse was recently elected to a second term in the U.S. Congress where he will continue to serve as the junior senator from Rhode Island.

Whitehouse, who previously served as the state’s attorney general, was first elected to the Senate in 2006. In the most recent election, he handily defeated Republican Barry Hinckley by garnering 65 percent of the vote.

According the Whitehouse, the results of November’s election confirmed the message that he had been getting as he traveled around the state on the campaign trail.

“The resounding win reflected the sense that I heard pretty frequently from Rhode Islanders,” Whitehouse said in a phone interview Tuesday. “They’re concerned that when it comes to the middle class, it’s hard for them to get a fair shake in Washington. I made that point in a lot of different contexts and committed myself to fighting on those issues.”

Whitehouse said people responded favorably to his message, and that they did so because it’s true: Washington, D.C., is a tough place for the middle class, and has been for the last decade.

In his first term, Whitehouse was a leading advocate for making sure that the affordable healthcare act succeeded in closing the Medicare “donut hole.” He also expressed satisfaction that he was able to work with U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, a Jamestown resident, to bring $100 million in aid to Rhode Island following the flooding in March 2010.

“It’s not the biggest thing in the world, but it made a difference to me to pass the Combating Military Counterfeits Act,” Whitehouse said.

The act gave the Department of Justice more clout in going after criminals who were doing things like selling Kevlar vests without any bulletproof capabilities to the Pentagon, or selling supposed military-grade guidance chips that turned out to be recycled consumer electronics parts.

There are several items on Whitehouse’s agenda that did not make it through Congress in his last term. He and his staff worked hard to pass a bill that would dedicate funds to protect, maintain and restore the ocean. It passed the Senate, but was blocked in the House of Representatives. He also advocated for the “Buffet Rule,” which would put a minimum tax on people with income of more than $1 million a year.

Whitehouse will also push for the Disclose Act. The legislation will shed some light on who is behind the big money that has been pouring into elections since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

“All of those got hearings and attention, and in one case passage all the way through the Senate, in the last Congress,” Whitehouse said. “In the next one I want to keep pressing on all of them, and I think we need to ramp up on climate change. That is an issue that has been delayed and denied too long.”

There is a lot of talk about bringing jobs to Rhode Island. Whitehouse was a leading floor advocate for a highway bill that would produce 9,000 jobs statewide. He got a provision into the legislation that once it’s funded will allow Rhode Island to compete to rebuild the northbound lane of the Providence viaduct where I-95 goes past the Providence Place Mall.

“Working with Sen. Reed we fought very hard for grant proposals, which have already opened up for the Department of Transportation to begin replacing the southbound lane of the Providence viaduct, and provided the upgrades of the infrastructure at both Quonset port and port of Providence,” Whitehouse said.

According to Whitehouse, the Quonset improvements are particularly important because the Department of the Interior plans to offer leases for offshore windenergy development. With the new infrastructure, Quonset can be used as an assembly point for the giant offshore turbines.

“That wasn’t just infrastructure for its own sake, that was what I called gateway infrastructure that will open up the facility to other industries and jobs,” Whitehouse said.

Whitehouse said that it has been a struggle for the Rhode Island congressional delegation to bring jobs to the state during the period of Republican obstruction in Congress. He pointed to Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) stated goal of depriving President Barack Obama of a second term.

“They haven’t been very helpful colleagues with recovering the economy, but we’ve had some successes notwithstanding that obstruction,” Whitehouse said.

With the motive to block Obama’s re-election campaign now moot, Whitehouse said that the Republicans will have to look for another purpose. “I think that purpose will have to include getting the American economy fully back on its feet, building the infrastructure that we need, working on enhancing American manufacturing, and continuing to support early-stage innovation.”

With this fiscal cliff deadline looming on Dec. 31, Whitehouse said that a solution is unlikely before the deadline, but could occur shortly after the deadline has passed. He added that the likeliest scenario is for an agreement between the House, Senate and president to take place early next year, though he held out hope that something could happen before the deadline.

“I think if the agreement ends up being Jan. 15 or Jan. 30 or Feb. 15, the consequences are not going to be very severe,” Whitehouse said.

Whitehouse said that the furor over passage of the bill by the deadline is largely media driven, and is based on assumptions that if an agreement is not reached by that time, no deal will ever be reached. He added that a postdeadline agreement would provide Republicans with more freedom in regard to their pledge to Grover Norquist not to raise taxes.

“Mr. Norquist presumes for purposes of measuring whether you’ve met your oath to him that the Bush tax cuts, all of them, last into eternity,” Whitehouse said. “On Jan. 1, when they actually go away as a matter of law, it gets harder for him to punish his Republicans as oath breakers if they agree to something that lowers taxes for 98 percent of Americans. The very same thing that would have been a tax increase on Dec. 31, on Jan. 2 is now a tax decrease.”

The looming threat and reality of climate change weighs heavily on the minds of many Rhode Islanders these days. Whitehouse said that it would be hard to get any legislation on climate change passed in the next session of Congress. He said that the Republicancontrolled House won’t admit that climate change is happening, a position he described as far from reality.

“What it’s going to take is developing strategies in Congress that raise the issue and encourage the White House to show more leadership on the issue,” he said, “and engage the public more on the issue.”

The senator pointed to a Congress that is “all jammed up” with polluters and deniers, but said that the public understands the importance of the issue and is not with them.

“I think we have the ability to build a coalition that will make it difficult for the Republicans to maintain their strategy of denial and obstruction about climate change,” Whitehouse said. “It’s going to take some doing. It’s not just a matter of writing a good bill that everyone will agree to and putting it out there, and everybody’s going to hold hands, sing ‘Kumbaya,’ and pass the bill. This is going to be a battle between entrenched special interests and the energy of the American public.”

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