It’s pretty clear that official Washington is talking about just three things these days: impeachment, impeachment, and more impeachment.
But while that happens, some pretty big issues are being left to wither on the vine, as Congress grinds ahead with its investigation of President Donald Trump’s apparent attempt to pressure a foreign leader to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Capital-Star on Monday, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., highlighted at least one of those big issues: rebuilding American infrastructure.
The Scranton Democrat, who has endorsed Biden, also pleaded the case for preserving and upholding the Affordable Care Act, even as other Democrats call for replacing it with Medicare for All.
Casey shed some light on Congress’ inaction on gun violence reform, and predicted dire outcomes for Senate Republicans if they fail to act on the hot-button issue. And there’s no doubt that climate change is real and that humans are to blame, he said.
Here are five takeaways from our conversation with Casey. They have been lightly edited for clarity and content.
Q: You need at least 20 Republicans to get a conviction in the Senate if the House sends over impeachment articles. Two Republicans (U.S. Sens. Ben Sasse, of Nebraska, and Mitt Romney, of Utah) have offered words of condemnation. What will it take to get other Republicans to step up?
Casey: “I think Republicans have … I mean, they’ve got a big, basic decision they have to make at some point. I’m not sure if we should expect them to make it now, or to make it clear where they stand on impeachment generally. I mean, conviction and removal, that is a whole other question.
“But, at a minimum, they should be expressing not just opposition … but outrage about what the president said on the phone call with the Ukrainian president. But also what he said in public about China just a few days ago. No president, under any circumstances, should be urging — publicly or privately — a foreign government to investigate a political opponent. That is always wrong. There are no exceptions or no conditions.
“Nor should any public official be seeking the help of a foreign power, at minimum … Republicans should at least stand up. And you could very easily, as some have done, condemn the behavior, right? And [you could] express, not just condemnation, but also express what you think is wrong with that behavior and what it does to our national security: How it’s … asking for … interference in a future election.”
Q: So what is it like trying to make laws in this kind of environment?
Casey: “Well, it’s … look, it’s been difficult for years getting bipartisan legislation done … Long before the president arrived in town. He’s, in my judgment, made it definitively worse. Because … his engagement, it tends to be very toxic. I mean, try to think of a day when he went several hours, and was affirmative for several hours, where he was bringing people together, working with both sides.
“I can’t think of a of a day when that happened. So, he’s made, he made a partisan, malfunctioning town a lot worse in my judgment.
(Casey is sponsoring legislation, with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that would close what’s known as the “WIC Gap,” from age 5 to age 6, thus ensuring that they will continue to have access to nutritious food, since some children do not begin school until they are 6 years old.)
“Having said that, a number of us have been able to get things done … in the midst of that. But it’s going to be that much harder now [with impeachment] … because he’s basically saying either implicitly or explicitly to Republicans, ‘Don’t make a move on this question of impeachment’ …
“And I think the rallies are part of an intimidation process where, if you step out of line, the next rally could be in your district, or it could be in your state. And it won’t only be a rally where he rallies opposition to you, and uses you as an example of someone who’s been disloyal to him, but your primary opponent will be on stage. And they will not only be on stage, they will raise a lot of money by the time the rally is over.”
Q: So what’s being left out? What’s going undone?
A: “One major thing that hasn’t moved a muscle? That’s infrastructure.
“He could have very easily, within days, literally days of his inauguration, come to Senate Democrats and said, ‘I hear you have a proposal about trying to invest a trillion dollars in our infrastructure. And I saw your proposal. It’s — I don’t know what it was, at the time, 12 pages or 10 pages — but it was a summary of a proposal that he could have grabbed and said, ‘You know what, I don’t like a trillion. I want it to be more or less.’
“… And he could have said to Senate Republicans, ‘Hey, you know, we’re going to disagree with these guys on a lot of things. But we’re going to get to repeal the health care bill. And we’re going to rip the tax code a little more in our tax bill. And we’re going to decimate regulations. And we’re going to decimate the Clean Power Plan and climate change [actions] … but we can work with them on infrastructure.’
“He did none of it. I think that part of it is, that I don’t think on a lot of days he wants to solve problems like that. … That means you have to have lots of meetings, lots of engagement, lots of travel, lots of energy, lots of commitment to try to move an infrastructure bill, and he just chose not to do it.
“So I think that’s a total total failure.”
Asked later about gun control, and the lack of movement since a wave of shootings in Texas and Ohio, Casey had this to say:
A: “There’s still a good bit of talk. But the question will be whether or not [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell thinks he can just kind of slink away from this — walk away from this.
“… But he’s … got some really tough decisions to make that candidly, two years ago he would have just said, ‘All those tragedies are terrible, but we’re not doing that.’
“The fact that he had to come out publicly, he felt he had to come out publicly to protect his members to say, ‘Oh, now, we’ve got to have some, some votes on this.’
“Now, he hasn’t delivered yet. I get that. He’s tried to put it off to the president saying, ‘If he guarantees that he will support our bills, we’ll have a vote. Oh, he said he’s not going to support it. So I guess we can’t.’ And so it’s a shell game.
“But I’m telling you, he’s playing with fire. He’s playing with fire. Because if he continues to do this, between now and the end of 2019, and [he] continues this into 2020, with no action on gun violence, no debates … no votes, [then] Mitch McConnell’s playing with fire because this is a different issue in my judgment than it was even a few years ago.
“… But we’ll see. We’ll see. We will go back in October, November, see if [McConnell] can still get away with it. But if he doesn’t do anything, then there is going to be a verdict in November of 2020. And the president should be concerned about that, because that verdict is going to be going against him in a big way.”
Q: So Gov. Wolf announced last week that he is starting the process of bringing Pennsylvania into RGGI, which is the regional cap-and-trade program. Do you support bringing Pennsylvania into a program like that?
A: “I do. And look, I mean, climate change, we can’t say it enough. I mean, you have to state a couple of basic principles upfront: Climate change is real. It’s caused by human activity. It’s a threat to human life.
“We know that one of the horrific results of unchecked climate change is famine and darkness and death for not just millions around the world but tens of millions. And the last thing we should say is: We’ve got to take action. So as a federal official, that means that I have an obligation to support the Clean Power Plan or the next version of it, when a Democratic president wins 2020 and has to resuscitate and maybe even expand upon the Clean Power Plan.
“It means opposing EPA administrators who are in the tank for corporate America and some right-wing view of the world, as I have. I’ll continue to oppose those kinds of nominees.
“Thirdly, it means making sure we go back into the Paris Climate Accords. Not only to do our part, but to help lead the world. You can’t combat climate change with The United States of America. You just can’t do it. And that means pressuring other countries like China and India and others, who are great, you know, huge emitters, to continue to make sure that we’re pressuring them to do their part.”
Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes contributed.