PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - Fresh off his re-election victory, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is optimistic the Senate will approve new rules making it harder for Republicans to block bills, and he's prepared to break with President Obama on a budget deal if it cuts Social Security or Medicare benefits.
"The good news is I think Majority Leader [Harry] Reid is now in a different frame of mind about filibuster reform, and that gives those of us who have been arguing for it a new and very important ally," Whitehouse told WPRI 12 on Wednesday during a half-hour phone interview from Washington.
Senate Democrats' caucus will expand by two after last week's elections, to 55 lawmakers, and some of the new senators have expressed support for filibuster changes. "I think this has traction," Whitehouse said. "I think there's a very good chance [Harry Reid] is an advocate for this and that sways other members of the caucus."
The increasing use of the filibuster, which allows a minority of 40 senators to block votes on bills, has stymied the chamber's Democrats in recent years, including Whitehouse on his DISCLOSE Act to beef up campaign finance regulations. He and other Senate liberals have argued the chamber's rules need to change.
January is filibuster D-Day
The Senate can adopt new debate rules at the start of its session in January with a simple 51-vote majority, meaning not all 55 Democratic caucus members have to go along. Whitehouse thinks senators should have to actually speak continuously on the floor, a la "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," during filibusters. He also wants to bar filibusters on motions to proceed and on conferee appointments.
"You'd still have the opportunity to debate," Whitehouse said. "I think it's important if somebody really wants to debate that they do have the opportunity. I don't mind a real, live, debating filibuster if somebody feels really strongly. ... What's new and different and wrong is the filibuster of everything by silent filibuster, just to knock off these 30-hour blocks of floor time."
Whitehouse thinks forcing senators to actually filibuster legislation in person would make them less willing to do so if the underlying measure is popular. "It really doesn't make sense to be filibustering on issues where your constituents aren't with you," he said.
Wants Medicare savings target
Whitehouse said his top priority at the moment is shaping the resolution of the so-called "fiscal cliff," a set of tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to take effect Jan. 1. He said he'd support allowing all the Bush tax cuts to expire at the end of this year if Republicans won't allow a tax hike on income above $250,000.
A major concern for Whitehouse is the possibility that Obama and Republicans could agree to a "grand bargain" on the budget that includes cuts to Social Security or Medicare benefits. "I'd like to see Social Security out of the discussion," he said, citing the current surplus in the program's trust fund.
On Medicare, Whitehouse acknowledged his preferred policies - reforms to the overall health care system, such as electronic records and basing pay on quality - won't get credited with significant savings up front by the Congressional Budget Office, which could make them harder to include in a budget deal.
To deal with that, Whitehouse said he's pushing the Obama administration to set a mandatory savings target with a deadline, likening it to JFK's 1960s push to put a man on the moon. "I would contend that if President Kennedy had said, 'It's my intention in 10 years to 'bend the curve' of space exploration,' it would not have been pursued with anything like that kind of vigor," he quipped.
"The Obama administration needs to cough up a number and a date, and be willing to be held accountable," Whitehouse said.
Last week's landslide 'moving'
Another priority for Whitehouse next year: climate change. "I think that the experience of Rhode Islanders in Sandy and looking at what it did to the coast has been a reminder that climate change is real and it's very much upon us, and it's very important that we step up and do our duty to future generations on that issue," he said.
Whitehouse has been rumored as a potential pick as the next chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Congressional Committee, but Politico reported this week Reid has offered the job to Colo. Sen. Michael Bennet. "I have not been asked and I'm not going to hypothesize unasked," Whitehouse said.
The senator said he's met up with Mass. U.S. Sen.-elect Elizabeth Warren during her visit to Washington this week, and noted that Warren's campaign manager was Mindy Myers, his own former chief of staff, who's now running Warren's transition team, too. "Elizabeth is getting excellent advice," he said. "It's in her nature to be a great senator."
Whitehouse gave significant credit for his 30-point landslide over Republican Barry Hinckley last week to his campaign team. "Everybody did better than expected, and I think that was because of the field organization that was out there," he said. "I think [Whitehouse campaign manager] Tony Simon did a particularly good job coordinating and leading all the political field organizations."
Whitehouse got slightly emotional when he noted that Rhode Islanders re-elected him overwhelmingly despite what he termed "some pretty vile accusations" by Hinckley and his allies late in the campaign, which suggested the senator engaged in insider trading. "Rhode Island is not that big of a place," he said. "It is moving to me that people have that trust, to simply disbelieve an unrebutted lie."
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