Above, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse at The Nook with owner Shannon Wylie in October.
By Elizabeth F. McNamara
Editor’s Note: EG News reached out to the Bob Flanders for Senate campaign for an interview but they declined.
Sheldon Whitehouse says he’s grateful for all the support he’s gotten from Rhode Islanders in recent weeks. And, indeed, while sitting in The Nook on Main Street in East Greenwich last week, Whitehouse was approached by two people who thanked him for his work as the state’s junior U.S. senator.
Whitehouse, a Democrat, is seeking his third term, facing Republican Bob Flanders, of East Greenwich. But he was in the national spotlight in late September when now-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was brought back for an additional hearing after an allegation of sexual assault from his teen years.
Whitehouse asked Kavanaugh about notations from the then-nominee’s high school yearbook, questions that Flanders derided in a campaign commercial.
Whitehouse stood by his role in the hearing and remains upset with the way the Senate Judiciary Committee handled the allegations against Kavanaugh from Christine Blasey Ford.
“I think in my closing statement I think I made it pretty clear that this violated very basic principles of justice, that there was plenty here that merited further investigation and that, as a matter of simple decency, this was our obligation,” Whitehouse said.
Still, despite all the rancor on both sides during the Kavanaugh hearing, Whitehouse is not completely despairing about the confirmation process going forward.
“The good news is I think there’s been a bipartisan sense this has been a failure and I think it’s fair to say, [Republican] Lindsey [Graham] and I were in conversations virtually immediately saying, this can’t happen again – we’ve got to figure out a way to not have this recur,” he said.
Whitehouse said as divisive as Washington appears, bipartisan legislation does get done. He described the process as having two “lanes.” One lane is where issues have become politically “weaponized” and the other is where it’s still very possible for Democrats and Republicans to work together.
“Once an issue has been weaponized, it makes it harder to make progress. But there are lots of issues that are not politically weaponized right now,” he said.
Case in point was the Oceans caucus Whitehouse heads with Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
“We’ve done four fisheries treaties, pirate fishing legislation, the marine plastics legislation and we’re working on a big ocean data bill now,” he said. “We’re close to 40 members from both parties in that caucus and everything that I just mentioned passed by unanimous consent.… We just worked with each other and quietly got it done.”
During the Senate campaign, Bob Flanders has taken Whitehouse to task over his focus on climate change. But for Whitehouse, that focus is a badge of honor. He has made more than 200 what he calls, “Time to Wake Up” speeches on the Senate floor about the perils of climate change.
But when asked how Americans could become more comfortable with less, Whitehouse pushed back, suggesting that was a talking point of the fossil fuel industry.
“Renewable-ness and abundance can happen together,” he said, noting Rhode Island’s work with wind energy. He said we need to focus on more renewable power sources. And, on a personal level, he said he loves his electric Chevy Volt.
Whitehouse thinks it’s possible for the New England states (or at least Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and Rhode Island) to pass a “small carbon fee” to give companies an incentive to reduce their carbon emissions. Many environmentalists think passing a carbon tax in the U.S. seems like a longshot today. For that, Whitehouse blames the U.S. Supreme Court “Citizens United” decision, which has allowed corporations, including fossil fuel corporations, to pour money into campaigns.
Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security
Whitehouse stands by his position that the Republicans want to get rid of Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, even as The Washington Post gave him a rating of “4 Pinocchios.”
“What The Washington Post wants you to say is that the Republicans want to get rid of Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security ‘as we know it,’ he said. “That’s been the ground on which they decide whether or not what you say is true. I don’t buy that. I think a party that wants to privatize Social Security – which they’ve tried to do – a party which wants to voucherize Medicare – which they’ve tried to do – and a party which wants to drop Medicaid to the states in block grants, wants to get rid of three things. They just aren’t the same thing after they’ve been privatized, voucherized, and block granted.”
He pointed to a $2 trillion cut out of Medicaid and Medicare in a budget that passed the House last year (it did not pass in the Senate).
“How on earth do you maintain Medicare and Medicaid with $2 trillion less?” he said. “I totally stand by my guns that the survival of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are at risk if the Republicans maintain a monopoly on power in Washington.”
As for how to pay for these programs, Whitehouse said there’s an answer right here in Rhode Island, where primary care provider Coastal Medical is saving $700 per patient per year since the Affordable Care Act passed and the doctors – rather than insurance companies – were able to make decisions on how to manage care. Coastal added pharmacists, nurses, social workers, all working with patients to make sure they were getting what they needed.
“So they basically wrapped their patients in a much warmer and more accessible hug of care and by the patients then being healthier, found that, oh my gosh, here are the savings. If we could replicate Coastal’s savings or anything like it, we’re into multiple multiple trillion dollars of savings. And that’s a bipartisan way to proceed,” he said.
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