Senate candidate Fischer on national security, trade, and the President as a role model

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October 24, 2018 - 2:30pm

As she completes her first term, U.S. Senator Deb Fischer campaigns as a steady presence in the mayhem of Washington politics.

Campaign Connection 2018 is the home for NET News coverage of the 2018 elections.

Read our
Campaign Connection 
of Deb Fischer HERE.

Other Resources

Coverage of the Fischer/Raybould Debate

Fischer for Senate web page

Fischer for Senate Facebook

KETV "Chronicle" interview with Fischer

May Primary Election Results

Jane Raybould (Photo: NET News)

Read our
Campaign Connection
Profile of Jane Raybould HERE.

Website for Libertarian Party candidate Jim Schultz


The Republican from Cherry County began her political career in 2004 winning a seat in the Nebraska Legislature. Entering the U.S. Senate in 2013, she served on the Committees on Agriculture, Armed Services and Commerce.

(Read our Campaign Connection profile of Deb Fischer.)

Her opponents are Jane Raybould, a Democrat and member of the Lincoln City Council and Libertarian Party candidate Jim Schultz.

We began our conversation with Fischer talking about whether she’s reexamined her legislative priorities since assuming office.

The complete transcript follows.

Bill Kelly (NET News): Have the reasons that you want to serve in the Senate changed significantly since you first ran for office for that position?

Sen. Deb Fischer: Well I believe that service, whether it's in the United States Senate or the state legislature or school board or your church board, whatever that may be, I truly believe people feel a calling and they want to serve. They want to make things better. They want to improve the lives of the people that they represent. And so no, that hasn't changed. I think of Nebraskans every single day when I take a vote or ask questions at a committee hearing or work on legislation. And I try to always remember stories, remember people that I meet when I'm back here in the state every weekend, and listen to their stories about the challenges they face and how I can help them make their lives better.

Kelly: Since you first ran for this office, have the issues changed to a great degree?

Fischer: They have to some extent, and possibly that could be just because of my exposure to issues. You know, where we are always concerned about health care, that's been an issue since I first ran. Tax relief. That's been an issue. Reducing regulations. That's been an issue. But in my first campaign and really in this campaign, to an extent, we really haven't had much of a conversation about foreign affairs or about national security. And I am third in seniority in the Armed Services Committee. So national security is the number one responsibility of the federal government. That is my constitutional duty, is to protect this homeland. And I believe that my exposure to foreign events, the threat of terrorism, the threat of a great power confrontation ... and when I say that, I mean with Russia, China. The challenges we face there. That takes up a great deal of my time and focus, as it should. Because as I said, it is the constitutional duty of the Senate and the Congress to provide for the national security of this country. So that would be one big change.

Kelly: We are still a country at war, and I'm hearing nothing about this from any candidate, any of their opponents, and not very much attention in the media either.

Fischer: Well you just did from me.

Kelly: But you didn't mention Afghanistan in that sentence.

Fischer: Right.

Kelly: We are still actively at war in Afghanistan. Why has that battle been so protracted, and is it still appropriate for us to have that role over there?

Fischer: I know that it ties into our whole conversation when it comes to national security. First and foremost, the last two years we have seen a rebuilding of our military, and that needed to happen. It was done in a bipartisan manner on the Armed Services Committee. And just recently, we passed appropriations to fund those changes. When we look at our defense security, when we look at our nuclear posture review that the Department of Defense just put out, we have to be able to modernize our nuclear triad and the platforms that use that. We have to be able to provide for the missile defense of this country. I'm the chairman of that subcommittee that has jurisdiction over that.

We face so many threats, whether they are conventional, nuclear, or cyber, or terror, space. The threats that are out there facing us as a country, we have to continually be on alert and up our game. The challenges we face in space are tremendous, especially with advancements that the Chinese have. When we look at terrorism, which goes back to your question there on Afghanistan, the question that I always bring to my mind is, do we fight the terrorists over there or over here? And our country has been safe since 9/11. We have not had a major terrorist attack in this country. And I can tell you that many have been foiled. So we have to be on alert. We have to also realize that the Afghans and our allies have to be a part of this as well, to step up. And that is the process that we're under now, that we have been under for some time in the past too, is to help the Afghans to rebuild their forces and to have our allies continue to be there with us when it comes to fighting terrorism at the root of it there in Afghanistan and that area.

Kelly: Is it appropriate that we still have a role in Afghanistan and that we still have fighting troops in that country?

Fischer: I believe we have to have a role in Afghanistan, just because of where it is located. Where it is located in the world, we have to have some kind of base in that area in order to gather intelligence from that area of the world. Otherwise, we will be in the dark. And that is meant just the way I said it. We will be in the dark. We have to be able to have intelligence. And that's not always readily available either through satellites, through other means that we have gathered intelligence. North Korea is a great example. We know very little about North Korea because they are a closed country. They are closed to many of our allies as well. They know when we have satellites passing over their country, and they can time movements, for examples, so that we can gather no information on that.

So I think it is important that we continue to have a role in that area of the world. Our adversaries would like nothing better than for the United States not just to leave Afghanistan and that area, but also in the Middle East and Syria. That's what the Russians' and the Iranians' goal is. They have a marriage of convenience right now in Syria, and their goal is to remove the United States as an influence, as a presence in that area of the world.

Kelly: Do you consider the efforts to reverse many, if not most of the provisions of Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, to be a major victory within your term of office, that that has been a significant move forward in improving healthcare?

Fischer: Nebraskans are suffering, and they have seen insurance rates rise since 2013 153%. We have seen 80,000 people who've lost insurance coverage with co-opportunity. We have seen 42,000 people who chose to pay a fine to the IRS, to pay a penalty to the IRS, instead of buying insurance, as they were required to do under the individual mandate. Those people and many others would like to see a competitive market when it comes to insurance, to have more than one provider on the individual market. They want to be able to see insurance rates come down. And that only happens when you put patients in control. So I believe in patient-centered insurance with competitiveness. And we are taking some steps in that area. We just recently passed a bill dealing with trying to lower the cost of prescription drugs. I first heard this story from a pharmacist in Hemingford, Nebraska. A very small pharmacy, obviously. And he was telling me that he was not allowed to tell patients that it was cheaper for them to pay for the drugs out of pocket than use their copay. We just passed this bill in the United States Senate on a bipartisan basis that removes that so-called gag clause.

Steps like that, I think Republicans and Democrats realize that's going to help to get some controls back into the cost of insurance.

And then we have other bills out there. For example, generic drug companies that want to be able to have a generic drug for a name drug right now. Pharmaceutical companies, they wouldn't give enough samples of that drug to generic drug companies to be able to analyze it to move faster. So we have a bill there on a bipartisan basis. I've been working with folks so that it would increase the samples that are made available so we can get generic drugs faster. Things like that. It's good to see, and these are good stories to tell for Nebraskans so that they know that, yes, there are folks that are working together in a bipartisan way to try to address the different aspects when we talk about health insurance and healthcare.

Kelly:  Are there too many people under or uninsured in America right now?

Fischer: I would say that in order to address underinsured or uninsured, you have to be able to have a product that meets the needs of individuals. I think when we talk about healthcare, healthcare and health insurance are two different things. The focus that we have had as a country has been on health insurance, where that has upended a system where now you have people paying $30,000 to $40,000 a year for health insurance with a $14,000 deductible. Those people, in many cases, are now uninsured, where their lives have been upended because they can't afford it anymore.

Kelly:  There's a sense that even after the repeal of many provisions of Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, that many people are still uninsured or underinsured and can't afford health care, and that there's been no replacement plan by Congress in either house at this point. Do you have that sense also, that there's this-

Fischer: Well I just gave you a good example of people who are now uninsured because of the cost of insurance. So that's what we're trying to address. I would challenge your statement that no plan was put forward. We've seen a number of plans put forward.

Kelly: There's no farm bill in place for a senator who, in part, positioned herself as someone who is going to be able to get things done for rural America. That must be frustrating.

Fischer: It is frustrating that we didn't get it done by September. It's not unusual with a farm bill, as you know. The last one was two years passed the reauthorization. I have delivered for the people of this state on any number of fronts, and the farm bill is one of those. I was very fortunate to get that spot on the Ag Committee on the year that we're writing the farm bill. We've written in the Senate bill, which of course I think is the better bill that's in conference committee right now. We've protected that safety net of crop insurance. We've combined numerous trade programs in order to have one trade promotion program that I think is going to be much more efficient, much more focused for trade. One section of the farm bill that I worked hard on that I'm very excited about, I worked with Amy Klobuchar, a senator from Minnesota, and she and I are on the Commerce Committee as well and have worked on broadband issues for now six years. We were able to get broadband deployment into the farm bill, into a section of the farm bill. So that's another avenue that we can use for a tool to get broadband deployment around the state. And as I said, I'm very excited about that.

Right now, agriculture is the third largest user of the internet of things. And that's without broadband deployment around the state. Think of the opportunities that we have across the state in rural communities to be able to use precision agriculture. I took a tour a few months ago up at Northeast Community College and got to see their precision ag program and all the really cool things that's happening with technology. They have that available. It's going to make ag producers more profitable and more efficient. Having the internet of things connect up with hospitals, telehealth, we can keep people in their homes longer. And especially in rural communities, keep people in their homes longer to be able to have telehealth availability. The opportunities for education. I mean, I'm just very, very excited. And I would note that under the farm bill, most of the programs under the farm bill, they haven't expired. They will not expire until the end of this year. So hopefully the four principals involved in that conference committee are going to reach some agreement and get a farm bill out. We're having a little issue with Representative Conaway, who's from Texas and represents a lot of cotton, and that seems to be the sticking issue right now. So I can tell you, Chairman Roberts reports to us regularly and is working hard to get this done.

Kelly:  Are you satisfied with the changes made in the North American Trade Agreement, whatever it's being called now, in regard to the revisions made in markets for corn, beef, soybeans for the state?

Fischer: What I'm hearing from producers are they're pleased with that, especially when you look at dairy. Dairy is very excited with what the administration was able to accomplish with Canada. So that's a good move there. You know, the Canadians, they have really a government program, a protectionist program when it came to dairy. And they were dumping a lot of dried milk on the world market. That hurt our dairy producers. So dairy folks have contacted me, and they're very pleased with that.

Kelly: You've expressed concerns about the global tariff's and the White House's policy, especially with China. Should the US Senate, when they reconvene, if this is not resolved by January, to override the president's actions?

Fischer: If you're speaking specifically about China, then that is not going to be resolved by January. I think all of us realize this is a long-term negotiation that's going to take place.

Kelly: Should the Senate intervene to try and work or eliminate the tariffs, especially on farm products?

Fischer: The Senate, I've supported in the past when it comes to national security on section 232 with tariffs. And the Senate I think does have a responsibility there when a president would invoke national security as a reason that a president would impose a tariff. I think the Senate has to step up and be able to review that. But with the Trade Promotion Authority, the TPA that was passed several years ago in the Senate when President Obama was president to give him authority to move on a fast track, that was a decision made that a president has to have that agility during trade negotiations to make decisions. Should the Senate take that back? I think that would be up for obviously a debate.

Kelly: After next year, since this won't be resolved expediently, does the Senate have a role in attempting to lessen the impact of these tariffs on agriculture in general, in Nebraska in particular?

Fischer:  Well I think there's a lot of ways we can do that, and I'm excited to be able to promote those ways. We did that in the farm bill, that I hope we get passed, by looking at the trade promotion programs under the USDA. When you create new markets, that helps producers. Producers in this state understand that.

Kelly: To the degree that it would offset the damages of not having a Chinese market open to soybean and beef?

Fischer: Yes. I think there's a lot of other markets right now that the administration is looking at. We just heard in the news recently with Japan. The negotiations or talks are opening up there. We've seen the solution and market open up in South Korea. Over a year ago, I think I was the first senator when we heard that the president was thinking about pulling out of KORUS, the South Korean Trade Agreement, I immediately contacted the administration. I sent a letter. I called Secretary Perdue because I know how important that South Korean market is. So we were able to have our voices heard with the administration. We did not pull out and it wasn't just trade that I was looking at. I was also looking at a partner when it comes to the defense of this country, because we have about 35,000 troops stationed in Korea. So to be able to shore up an ally, you don't want to pull out of an agreement.

So those were two very important reasons that I felt we needed to stay in there. We now have a trade agreement with South Korea that my beef producers are very happy about. To be able to open up the Japanese market is good. I opened up a beef market up in Israel that had been closed for 13 years. That's an achievement I'm really proud about. The administration is looking at a number of markets in Southeast Asia. I can't disclose those publicly right now because negotiations are going on, but they're looking at a number there and also in Africa. So if we can continue to build new relationships and bilateral agreements, I think that will be a definitely plus for our ag producers. And they agree with me.

Kelly:   You're the chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure.

Fischer:    Security and Safety. It's a long one.

Kelly: President Trump made a campaign promise of a $1.5 trillion investment in infrastructure. The actual federal investment he's proposing is now closer to $200 billion. And Congress hasn't advanced any plan. So infrastructure improvement was a key goal of your campaign and one of the reasons you were pleased to be on this committee. For an issue that everyone seems to agree on, why has investment been so small and so difficult to pass?

Fischer: Well, first of all, we have delivered. We passed the FAST Act, which was a highway reauthorization funding bill, in 2015. I brought back $1.5 billion to the state of Nebraska for our roads and bridges. So we have delivered on that. Taking the next step in trying to get a bigger bill passed, my proposals ... and I have a bill introduced, the Build USA Infrastructure Act ... and my proposals have always been to look at every segment of infrastructure. I don't necessarily like big, comprehensive bills. And with my background and expertise when it comes to infrastructure, I believe the way forward would be to take this segment by segment. So we address roads. We address broadband. We address transmission lines. We address ports. We address airports. We look at them separately, because I believe we come out with better policy but we also would make it easier, I think, to find agreement not just on the policy but look for pay force then that would have a nexus with that part of the infrastructure that we're trying to fund.

Kelly: Of that list, how many of those areas have received funding and have advanced proposals in Congress?

Fischer: I passed a safe pipeline bill with my ranking member on the committee at the time, Cory Booker. That addressed pipelines to provide for more inspector to be out, in order to make sure we have pipeline safety. So it's a step-by-step process, again. But I agree with you. We have not taken on infrastructure as a whole, and the main reason is, how do you fund it? That's how do you fund it? You're talking billions and billions and billions of dollars.

Kelly: The president said we'd be able to do that.

Fischer: I don't think we're going to fund it quite the way the president has in mind. We do disagree on things. He knows I want a segment by segment view of this. I don't necessarily support having the government put forth some money and then having private industry come in. I'm sure there are places where that would work, but I've never supported bonding when it comes to roads because I think in the long term, you end up paying off the bonds and you can't maintain the roads that were built. We've seen that happen in other states. I think Nebraska has a good policy, where's it's pay as you go. And I've always supported that. So there are obviously, in each area of the infrastructure that we deal with, I think you have to look at a nexus on how you're going to fund it.

Kelly:  How do you fund it?

Fischer: Well let me tell you about a bill I have.

Kelly: If it's not federally funded, who pays for it?

Fischer:    Well taxpayers pay for it no matter if it's state funded or federally funded. This is taxpayer money. This is our money as citizens of this country that pay for anything that government does, whether it's at the state level, the local level. The discussion now in Nebraska on property taxes. So whether it's local, state, or federal, it's tax dollars that fund it. I think you have to make decisions on how you're going to fund it. You can say, well, raise the fuel tax, for example, to pay for roads. You can't raise the fuel tax enough. And I am not a fan of raising the fuel tax. I think it's a regressive tax and it hurts those who struggle in society more than it should. So I've always said you have to be able to look at programs individually across the board and make decisions on what you're going to fund and what you're not going to fund.

We've done that. This year for the first time in decades, is my understanding, since the Senate stepped up and took up spending bills, we took up 9 spending bills out of 12. So government didn't shut down. That wasn't in the news, but government didn't shut down. And I think that's the way we have to work. You have to be able to reach consensus in the Senate to get it done.

Just like I did in Nebraska, I think you have to look outside the box on how you're going to do this. Will you have enough money to take care of all the needs that are out there? There are some, no, you won't. You know? There are some of my colleagues who want to be able to see school buildings rebuilt in their communities and in their state. While that's infrastructure, I don't believe that that's the duty of the federal government to do that. So there's going to be a big debate moving forward, first on what is infrastructure. Does that include school buildings or veterans' hospitals or transmission lines or dredging out ports, dredging out rivers? We could see that in the Missouri River for Barge traffic. It's a tremendous cost. And you and I both know, Bill, there will never be enough money to take care of it all. But we have to get moving on it.

Kelly: You've talked about space as a national security issue. Do you favor the creation of a new military role in space, as proposed by President Trump, especially if the plans would proceed to give StratCom's role in Nebraska a higher role, a higher priority in that program?

Fischer: I have to be convinced of Space Force. I have not supported it, and I believe it would take that role away from StratCom. It would not keep space under the jurisdiction of StratCom. But my main concern is, number one, you're setting up a new bureaucracy with Space Force. How do you pay for it? And number two, do we have the personnel currently that could even move into those positions, move from other areas within the Department of Defense and other commands? I have not been convinced of that yet. This has been under discussion for quite a few years, before President Trump's time. In the previous administration, I did not support it either.

Kelly: Would there be a role, potentially, for StratCom in that? Or is it, by its very nature and design, StratCom's role would be insignificant?

Fischer: Done. It would be done.

Kelly: That's a major point for you obviously.

Fischer:    It is. It's part of, obviously, my decision-making process when I look at that. But it goes back to, do we have the need for it? If we as a country have the need for it, if I can be persuaded of that, shown that, convinced of that, then I will re-evaluate my position.

Kelly: Back on August 8th, there were a set of immigration raids in the state of Nebraska, in North Central Nebraska. In hindsight, do you think those actions by ICE were handled appropriately?

Fischer: From what I know about the raids that took place in my part of the state of Nebraska, I think it was handled appropriately. Obviously it was vulnerable people who were taken advantage of in that area of the state. These workers were taken advantage of. It was a long investigation. This wasn't just a raid done on a shoestring. This was a long investigation, and I think it was appropriate.

Kelly: Of all the very complex elements of immigration policy, very specifically, are there changes that you feel can take place in the short term that would help address the workforce availability for agriculture in this part of the world?

Fischer: I have said from the very beginning from over six years ago that here's another case where I think we shouldn't be looking at this comprehensive immigration policy. Obviously, that's not going to pass. And I think we need to look at it one step at a time, and I would hope that we would have bipartisan support. We haven't seen that yet. Senator Grassley introduced an amendment to a shell bill that was put up back in February, and I supported his amendment that would've addressed border security. It would've put money there for the wall, where it's appropriate, for fencing, for technology for border patrol, and for a biometric entry/exit system, which I have offered amendments on a biometric entry/exit system in the past. It would've also offered a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million DACA recipients. Now there's 700 DACA recipients in the United States, but this was for 1.8 because that's the number of those who would qualify if they would register as DACA recipients. We only had 36 Republicans and three Democrats support that. So that to me is very, very concerning, that we couldn't reach what was viewed by many as a compromise on an issue to provide for border security and address DACA then at the same time.

I think we have to provide for border security. A next step for me would be looking at legal immigration, and that gets to the workforce question that you asked. To be able to look at legal immigration and address the needs of our country, whether that is through ag workers, which I hear from my friends and neighbors all the time, whether it's finding more high tech workers to allow them to come in the country, change our system so we can attract more. I hear that from businesses. A lot of high tech business here in Silicon Prairie, not just in Lincoln but in Omaha. I have meetings with them quite often. To be able to address that I think is paramount to be able to have the workforce that we need.

 But we also have to look at work visas and what that entails. I'm really proud of the work that my office here in Nebraska does when it comes to immigration. We help a lot of people, a lot of business, where they have relationships established for many, many years. Whether it's having ag workers from Guatemala come up and be able to help with harvest, and then those folks go back home; or whether it's roofers. I've visited with companies here in Lincoln who have had problems with the visa, getting the roofers here. And we've been able to work with the State Department to make that easier to get those folks in so they are able to work. It shouldn't take a call from a United States senator to do that. We should have a system. We should have laws in place that would make that a much, much easier process for those people who want to come and work on a visa in this country, and for the businesses that want to hire them.

Kelly: But the laws aren't in place.

Fischer: Right.

Kelly: And that's the role of the US Senate.

Fischer: It is.

Kelly: So what is the policy or legal solution to provide immigrant labor to farmers in Nebraska?

Fischer: To help change the visa program, which is a political issue obviously. And we can't seem to get 60 votes to do it. I gave you the example earlier with border security and DACA recipients. I supported that. I was one of only 36 Republicans. Only three Democrats supported it. It's very frustrating.

Kelly: There's the possibility after this election that there will either be an increased number of the opposing party in one or both houses in Congress, perhaps even a change in leadership in one of those houses. Everyone asks if bipartisanship is possible. Will this make it easier or more difficult for legislators of both parties if there is a divided Congress?

Fischer: I think we'll have to wait and see. But as you look right now at our country, and Congress is a reflection of that, we're very polarized. You know, I've had hundreds of town halls and community coffees and roundtables around the state. My message is always a positive one when I'm speaking to Nebraskans because they don't always hear that on the news. They don't always hear that we do get things done, that we do pass big bills. It's just the contentious issues that are out there. You know, I mentioned passing the FAST Act. That was bipartisan, obviously. And being able to bring that $1.5 billion back to the state of Nebraska for our roads. We're rebuilding our military. That is bipartisan. We gave a salary increase for the first time since 2009 to our military men and women. That's bipartisan. We're modernizing our missile defense system and our nuclear modernization going on. That's bipartisan. We've passed bills dealing with human trafficking, with opioid addiction ... a number on opioid addiction, with research at NIH, with education to bring more local control back to the state of Nebraska. I had an amendment on that. FAA reauthorization. We just passed a water infrastructure bill. Those were all passed in a bipartisan way. The farm bill passed in a bipartisan way.

But those stories don't get told, and people need to know that the Senate does still work. It's a little tense right now. Hopefully after the election when we go back, we'll be able to start rebuilding some trust there. But you don't get anything done in the Senate unless you work in a bipartisan way. I've been rated the 13th most effective senator in the United States Senate. That's because I do have relationships with Republicans and Democrats. I work on legislation, and in order to get it done, you have to have a Democrat co-sponsor. And I have great relationship with folks to be able to get things done.

Kelly: Has President Trump been a polarizing force in that regard? In transmitting that message?

Fischer: I don't think the tweets help, you know? I don't follow the president's tweets. I support the president on most of his policies. We have some disagreements on tariffs. We have, as I mentioned, the Space Force. But I support the president's policies and I think we've seen good results on that. But we saw it under President Obama, my first two years in the Senate, Harry Reid was majority leader. In 2014, there was no legislative process going on. Only 15 amendments were allowed on the floor of the United States Senate by Harry Reid. That's dysfunction. And the Democrat party paid for that. They lost a number of incumbents because those members never had an amendment passed. They never had a bill passed. They were viewed as not doing their job.

And that's why I think it's important that Nebraskans know that even though there's a lot of negativity at times in Washington, that those of us who believe in working for our constituents and trying to make their lives better, we work together. You know? I was really fortunate to get a paid family leave bill included in the tax cut package. That's historic. And that's something I hear from people in Nebraska, men and women, who are trying to juggle their lives and take care of their kids, take care of their aging parents, be able to take a couple hours off. I worked with Angus King. He's my co-sponsor on that bill. And now we introduced a bill we're hoping the finance committee will get that included in something that's going to extend that pilot program another five years. Angus came up to me and he said, "Deb, we've got to get this done." And I said, "I've got it ready to go. Are you going to sign on?" And he said, "You bet." So there's always stories like that out there. You can always find an issue that you can reach out to somebody and work on, especially when it's something that's going to help family, like paid family leave.

Kelly: One other thing in that regard. America often points to its elected leaders as role models. Do you consider the conduct and the personal behavior of the president to be worthy of being held up to the role model, even to your three grandchildren?

Fischer: You know, I think it's important that we always remember we are role models. When I ran for the Senate last time, people would come up to me and want a picture, and fathers would bring their young daughters and want a picture. And then after I was elected, of course that increased. And it was very uncomfortable. It was very uncomfortable at first to have somebody come up and want a picture with you. But then I realized, they don't want a picture with me. They want a picture with the woman senator from Nebraska. They want a picture of the senior senator from Nebraska. And that is the position that I think you always have to keep in mind.

Kelly: Thank you very much.

Fischer: Thank you.



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