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Saturday, January 28, 2023

Reps Cicilline and Magaziner discuss first days in Republican-controlled House

"Working" with the right

By Steve Ahlquist for UpRiseRI

On Thursday January 19th Uprise RI alongside other local journalists sat down with Rhode Island’s United States Representatives David Cicilline and Seth Magaziner, both Democrats. Representative Cicilline has served since 2011, Representative Magaziner was recently sworn in for his first term, after a long delay as Republicans in the House, who hold a small majority, struggled to elect Kevin McCarthy to the Speakership.

This conversation was held in Representative Cicilline’s Pawtucket office with a small number of local journalists. It was rather informal, with a good back and forth in questions. The transcript has been edited for clarity, you can watch the full interview here: United States Reprepresentatives David Cicillini and Seth Magaziner Press Conference - Jan 19 2023 - YouTube

David Cicilline: We want to reflect on the first couple of weeks of the new Congress. I’m delighted to say I have a new colleague and I’m no longer the most junior member of the House delegation from Rhode Island. I think what has been disappointing to me is that the first legislative week was filled with a set of bills that really didn’t focus on the urgent priorities of Rhode Islanders. Many of our Republican colleagues ran on doing everything they could to reduce costs, and bring down the cost of energy and food, and to tackle inflation to help create good paying jobs.

But if you look at the legislative week, what are the first things they’re going to do? The very first bill that they passed was a bill to gut the Internal Revenue Service, to make it take much longer for Rhode Islanders to get their refund checks and to require folks to stand in line longer because of the lack of staff. It will add $114 billion to the deficit and will make it easier for people at the highest income to avoid paying their fair share. They did a series of bills related to their long-time effort to enact a national abortion ban and a number of other bills that don’t reflect the priorities of Rhode Islanders. So, I think it was a very bad omen of what we’re going to see over the next two years. I remain very committed to focusing on the issues I know matter to Rhode Island: protecting Social Security and Medicare, advancing our Make in America agenda, focusing on reducing gun violence and delivering real results, [such as] community project funding, bringing resources back to Rhode Island and all that work.

With that I’ll turn it over to Seth to talk about some the other issues and his first impressions. And I probably should apologize to Congressman Magazine that he had to wait so long to be sworn in.

Seth Magaziner: Thank you guys for coming and thank you for to Congressman Cicilline for hosting. I’ll just say it is a tremendous honor to represent our state in Congress and I’m committed to working hard on the priorities that I ran on: fighting for working Rhode Islanders by lowering the cost of living, lowering drug prices, energy prices, protecting Social Security and Medicare, and protecting abortion rights. It was an interesting first couple of weeks for sure. We saw the chaos on the Republican side during the multiple votes for Speaker. What is clear to me from all of that is that the most extreme elements of the Republican caucus are really calling the shots now and Kevin McCarthy showed that he will bend over backwards for the most extreme voices in his party.

I worry about what that will mean for what the rest of the two-year session will look like. I should also say that I’m very fortunate to have a senior colleague who’s been really terrific in helping me learn the ropes. David has been fantastic. [Former Congressman] Jim Langevin was, as well, during the transition process, so thank you for that. I’m still hopeful. I’m still hopeful that there are reasonable Republicans and people on both sides of the aisle who actually care about getting things done. But I had the same thought that David did last week, which is, after this long campaign session where the Republicans spent millions and millions of dollars focusing on, and rightfully so, the high cost of energy, the high cost of healthcare, the high cost of groceries – Where is the legislation on drug prices? Where is the legislation on energy prices, on food prices, on strengthening Social Security?

There’s been none of that and no talk of it really. The first week of legislation was these “messaging bills” that didn’t actually do anything to advance the priorities of Rhode Island or the American people. Already now they’re lurching toward a debate over whether the country’s going to continue to pay its bills or not, as opposed to focusing on the issues that we know people care about. I’ll stop there. I’m still hopeful. I’m ready to get to work. But it’s a challenging environment that we find ourselves in.

Steve Klamkin [WPRO]: You ran for office hoping and enumerating a number of things you’d like to see get done. Do you worry? None of it’s going to happen.

Seth Magaziner: My first impressions, and David can speak more authoritatively on this than I can after two weeks, but my first impressions are that there really are Republicans in Congress who want to get things done on these issues, and they’re approachable. I spent a lot of my time that first week – when we had our multiple votes for speaker – going around the chamber and introducing myself to people. There are Republicans who care about not just lowering inflation, but bringing back manufacturing jobs and figuring out what are we going to do about Social Security. The problem is that the leadership on the Republican side has already sold-out Congress to the most extreme elements in their party. My hope is that we will be able to do things procedurally, with the reasonable Republicans who are left, to get things done. But the leadership on the Republican side is showing that they’re going to do whatever the most extreme elements in their party want them to do.

David Cicilline: The only thing I would add to that is that Speaker McCarthy made a set of secret deals with this group of 20 or so folks who had been voting against him becoming Speaker of the House. We don’t know what the provisions of those agreements are, what he committed to doing and not doing. I think Seth is absolutely right. I think there’s a cohort of our colleagues on the Republican side that do want to get stuff done. The question is, will they be willing to work with the vast majority of Democrats and buck their own party leadership to actually deliver results to the American People?

Steve Klamkin: Obviously, you guys are sitting here, so there’s not going to be a vote to raise the debt ceiling or amend it in anyway,. Should we be concerned about this?

Seth Magaziner: Very. So I think what we need to do is explain to people what the consequence will be in the lives of everyday Rhode Islanders if the country were to stop paying its bills. Because this is not just a bunch of politicians fighting in Washington. There are real life consequences. If the country were to default on its obligations, what would happen? Number one, interest rates would spike. If you think that interest rates are high now – mortgage rates, lines of credit for small businesses – those rates will go up significantly higher if there were to be a default. If you’re a small business with a line of credit, if you are someone who’s looking to retire and downsize and sell your house, or a young family looking to buy a house, everything grinds to a halt. Your retirement savings: the value is going to collapse. And then the country is going to have to start making decisions about which bills it is going to pay or not pay.

Are we not going to pay military salaries? Are we not going to pay Social Security benefits? Are we not going to pay vendors, which are American companies that employ American workers? People need to understand there are real life consequences to this that are going to hit people in their wallets very hard. What’s frustrating to me is that the extreme Republicans that are saying that they want to use the debt ceiling as leverage haven’t even said what they want. They vaguely said that they want spending cuts, but what spending cuts do they want? Is it Social Security they want to cut? Is it education funding? Is it school lunches? They’re not saying. It’s a very concerning situation and it’s foolish.

Steve Klamkin: Congressman Magaziner may have said it all, Congressman Cicilline, but you’ve seen this movie before.

David Cicilline: Yeah. It’s very serious. I think Seth is absolutely right. We have to make sure people understand what the implications are, what the real-life consequences are if the United States defaults on its debt obligations. It’s also important to recognize that this is money that has already been spent. We can have a real debate about what we should do going forward, what we should spend money on or not spend money on. We’re prepared to have that debate with our Republican colleagues. But there shouldn’t be any debate that, if you have incurred a debt, you pay your bills. It’s like when you get a credit card bill, you might regret having bought something, but you have to pay the bill. There’s a consequence if you don’t. I think there is a group of Republicans who understand that, and I hope they will work with Democrats so that we can raise the debt ceiling and not disrupt the economy of our country and devastate the economic conditions of Rhode Islanders and people all across this country.

But there’s no doubt that the Republican leadership and some of the most extreme members of the Republican caucus are attempting to use this must do event as a way to exact deep cuts in Social Security and Medicare, which they know we will not agree to. We will never agree to those kinds of things. So they’re going to try to play chicken with the full faith and credit of the United States. It’s dangerous. It has real consequences. And I’m hopeful that we’re going to find a group of Republicans that understand that, and that they’ll hear from the business community about what this means for the economy long term, and that we’ll have a solution that avoids a default on the United States’ debt.

Uprise RI: How do you continue to protect Medicare and Social Security in the meantime? Because this could go into the summer.

David Cicilline: Many of these Republican candidates – I think is part of their written plan for the new Congress. They have always been interested in cutting Social Security, Medicare. They fundamentally don’t support these programs, right? One of the reasons they gave a gigantic tax cut in the last congress when Trump was still in office, was to reward their biggest donors and the wealthiest people in this country. That was not paid for, and this is the second part of that play. They give away a huge chunk of money to the top 1%, the millionaires and billionaires – unpaid for – and then say, “Oh, we can’t afford this debt. We have to cut Social Security and Medicare so we can pay for that.”

We are going to continue to stand and fight for all Rhode Islanders. We know how important those programs are to Rhode Islanders and seniors all across our state. We know that there has been an ongoing effort by our Republican colleagues, throughout the time I’ve been in Congress, to make cuts in Social Security and Medicare. We beat them back every time. We’re going to do it again.

Dan McGowan [Boston Globe]: How does this Republican Congress compare to the last time you were in the minority? Is it harder to get anything done? Does it work out politically, in your benefit, in the end?

David Cicilline: I think it’s early. We’ve only been there two weeks. The Speakership of Kevin McCarthy is predicated on reaching an agreement with the most extreme members of his caucus, the most MAGA, ultra-right members of his caucus. He had to come to some sort of agreement in order to get their votes and it took 15 votes or whatever it was. So what’s different this time is they have really significantly reduced the power of the Speaker in their rules. They have a very small majority, a very small margin, and it’s being driven by this Freedom Caucus within the Republican Caucus, which is the most extreme component. So I think it’s going to be more challenging.

The good news is there are about 20 Republicans who were elected in districts that President Biden won. I think there is a group of Republicans that are going to be predisposed to work with House Democrats because they know that their constituents want them to get things done, to deliver on their priorities. I think they’re nervous about the early days of this new Congress because it’s not what they ran on. It’s not what their constituents expect. My hope is that we’re going to be able to work with that cohort of House Republicans, the more moderate Republicans, to actually get some things done. But it’s the most challenging time that I’ve been there in terms of our being in the minority and the majority being run by, or led by, a really small group of quite extreme people.

Herb Weiss: The Problem Solvers Caucus is composed of equal number of Democrats and Republicans. Will they be very instrumental in making the Democratic agenda happen and move forward?

David Cicilline: They have historically been very productive in terms of helping to bring together Republican and Democrats. What makes me less certain in this new Congress is the Republicans who are part of the Problem Solvers Caucus are not the Republicans that are leading the Republican Caucus. They’re not the most extreme. They are the more moderates. So while I think that’s a natural place to start these discussions, I’m not sure they’re going to have the power within the Republican conference to actually be successful. But it’s certainly a group we’re going to look to in helping to forge bipartisanship in the house.

Dan McGowan: You gotten your committee assignments yet?

Seth Magaziner: No. No.

David Cicilline: He was sworn in. I mean, come on.

Seth Magaziner: Yeah, no. The contested speakership delayed everything. Not even the negotiations around how many Democrat and Republican spots there will be on each committee. Oftentimes those negotiations, I understand, happen before the session even begins. Speaker McCarthy basically said he wasn’t going to start any of those conversations until after the Speakership race. So everything’s been delayed by a couple of weeks. It is yet another product of the early dysfunction on the Republican side. But Congressman Cicilline is right: There are people on both sides of the aisle that care about getting things done. There are issues where I think there’s room for overlap.

The national media, cable news, et cetera, they tend to focus on the areas of conflict, but there are areas of agreement. The CHIPS Act passed with bipartisan support. The infrastructure bill passed with bipartisan support. On issues like promoting career and technical education I’ve heard that there is a lot of desire to do something for that on the Republican side and in the Education Committee. So I do think that there are areas of overlap where it could be possible to get something done. One of the things that’ll be interesting to watch is that one of the concessions Speaker McCarthy made, in order to get his position, was making it easier for amendments to be introduced on the floor by any member. That could be tricky for him because it could lead to gridlock, but it could also give Democrats and other more moderate Republicans the opportunity to do things by amendment to get things done that actually might have been harder under the old rules.

David Cicilline: And the other provision, which still exists, is a discharge petition. I we have an issue that all of the Democrats support, and we can find four or five Republicans to support it, we can use the discharge position, which requires that once it’s signed by majority of the members that that bill be brought to the floor immediately for a vote. You can imagine something like the debt ceiling – one approach might where the Democrats do a discharge position and get five or six Republicans who understand the consequences – and force a vote on a clean debt ceiling.

Dan McGowan: When you talk to potential Republicans who might be willing to do that, is it just, “Look, I might get primaried?” Is that their biggest concern?

David Cicilline: In those districts they were elected because they weren’t the most extreme Republican. They typically had a primary against someone who was an ultra MAGA, and they prevailed because their district is more divided. So they need to rely on Democrats as well as Republicans to get elected. I don’t think in those districts that they’re as worried about a primary. Some of them will be, but I think those are districts where people made the case that they would come to Washington, work with Democrats to get things done, and the debt ceiling vote would give them a good opportunity to prove that they were serious about that. Also, they understand, as Seth laid out, the very serious consequences of a default in the lives of ordinary folks. It’s not just some abstract idea out there. It’s going to have real life and pretty devastating consequences for real people.

Uprise RI: Do you think a default could result in the recession we’re all so worried about? This could definitely trigger that, correct?

David Cicilline: No question about it.

Uprise RI: What do you do about the little traps they built into the new “weak Speaker” model that would allow somebody to throw the entire house into disarray for days at a time when we’re talking about issues that are very important like this? You can imagine emergency stuff could come up – a hurricane somewhere or a terrorist attack – and suddenly the house has to move. And generally that might overcome the intransigence, but it might also not, the intransigence might still be there. What does that do? Does it just gridlock in Congress and we stop?

Seth Magaziner: It’s a real concern. I’m concerned about it. If it took them 15 tries to elect the Speaker, it shows that there is a potential for real disarray under this Republican leadership that could lead to real world consequences like you’re talking about. What I keep coming back to though is that I believe strongly that in the last two elections, the midterm election last year and the 2020 presidential election, the American people rejected chaos. They were tired of the chaos from the Trump years. They were tired of everything that happened during that period. And if the Republicans in House leadership force a shut down or force a default, or trigger a recession, they’re going to be punished pretty quickly and pretty swiftly by the American people who are tired of the chaos and tired of the nonsense. That’s what will hopefully spook some of these more reasonable Republicans, the Republicans from the Biden districts, to work with Democrats to break the stalemate because the American people aren’t going to stand for it.

David Cicilline: One thing I would say in addition to that is that contrasted with the last Congress, where we came together as Republicans and Democrats for the biggest investment to rebuild the infrastructure of our country, that we passed the Inflation Reduction Act to bring down the costs of healthcare and prescription drugs, and pass the CHIPS Act so we can compete globally in the manufacturing of chips and rebuild our economy, and the American Rescue Plan, which helped every community respond to the consequences of Covid. We have a record of extraordinary accomplishments in the last Congress when Democrats were in control, and now the Republicans have to produce. We’re willing to work with them and deliver for the American people. But that’s going to be the comparison. I think Seth’s exactly right: If they continue to engage in this sort of chaotic in-fighting, with no effort towards actually getting anything done, they’re going to face the consequences in the next election. And Democrats will come back into the majority.

Dan McGowan: We learned today that Providence Police Chief Hugh Clements is going to DC. I heard you played a role as an advocate for him. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

David Cicilline: Chief Clements has been an extraordinary Police Chief, and I definitely shared with the White House my confidence in him and the work that he has done in the City of Providence and how deeply respected he is, not just in law enforcement, but from community leaders and people in the African American and Latino communities and other marginalized communities in our city. He has built incredibly trusting relationships. I know he will be a magnificent leader of that office. Although it’s a loss for the capital city, and I felt badly about that, I knew it was something that he was interested in and would be great at, and I was really proud to advocate for him.

Uprise RI: Can I ask about the ongoing increase in white supremacist violence across the country? I know in New Hampshire they just made some arrests and I think there’s been some push in Massachusetts to do the same, but this is a national issue. The Anti-Defamation League just put out a pretty big report on this. Do you have any thoughts on that? With Congress being limited, this doesn’t seem like the kind of issue you’ll be able to get into in a deep way. So what do we do? How do we navigate that?

Seth Magaziner: Obviously the rise in political violence nationally, from the far right, is very concerning. And the fact that you have prominent elected officials and a prominent former president actively cheerleading for a lot of these extreme elements is deeply, deeply concerning. One of the things that the Republicans have done, which I think we’re worried about, is they’ve created this new subcommittee that essentially is set up to obstruct the Department of Justice and other investigations into far right groups. Far right groups that in some cases have colluded with sitting members of Congress, like on January 6th. So I think it’s going to be very damaging for the relationship between the Department of Justice, law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies, and the United States Congress. My hope is that it won’t impede any of those investigations or any of those law enforcement activities into these hate groups. But certainly the intent of this fringe element in the Republican caucus is to obstruct justice, to obstruct law enforcement’s ability to intervene before violence occurs, instead of just after the fact.

Steve Klamkin: Excuse my ignorance, what is the subcommittee?

David Cicilline: It’s called the Select Committee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. There’s no doubt there’s been a significant increase in domestic terrorism and white nationalism and the FBI continues to identify that as the greatest threat to the homeland: ongoing domestic terrorism by these organizations. I think one of the things that has changed is that, sadly, we have members of Congress who are amplifying some of this rhetoric which is leading to the incitement of pretty serious violence. We have a former president who is using these Qanon conspiracy theories on his social media platforms. That was not normally the case and I think that has made the problem worse. As Congressman Magaziner said, the other problem is the Republicans just created this committee and this is really like shocking. This is a committee that, at least according to the ruled provision, will be allowed to investigate ongoing criminal investigations, which raises very serious separation of power. That’s the purview of executive branch. But the idea that Congress could go in and try to meddle or interfere or stop an ongoing criminal investigation or prosecution of violent extremism is very dangerous, very concerning. And when you think people like Congressman Jim Jordan are going to be leading this effort, there’s a lot of reason to be concerned.

Seth Magaziner: Just take it a step further: In those rule provisions they say that whoever’s appointed to that committee will have the same level of security clearance and access as a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, which is like the committee that has access to the most deeply guarded secrets of the federal government. There’s a bipartisan tradition of appointing people to that House Select Committee on intelligence who are reasonable, responsible people. The Republicans, even in recent years, have not typically appointed their most extreme people to that committee. Now, on this new committee, they’re going to have the same level of access to national security secrets. We don’t know who they’re going to appoint to it yet, but this was one of the demands of those holdouts during the McCarthy Speakership race.

On top of that they just announced that they are going to appoint Marjorie Taylor Green to be on the Homeland Security Committee, which is insane. I mean, this is an individual who not only spread conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, but has denied that a plane hit the Pentagon on 911, has spread antisemitic rumors, has said that the Parkland School shooting was faked, and who has campaigned openly with groups like the Three Percenters and the so-called American First Patriots, some of the very organizations that have engaged in acts of violence against our country. To appoint someone like that to the Homeland Security Committee, that oversees law enforcement in this country, is tremendously dangerous and something that we’re going to have to keep a very close eye on.

Steven Klamkin: How have you either you met her?

David Cicilline: I’ve met her. I’ve served with her.

Seth Magaziner: I have not.

David Cicilline: I served with her for the last two years. Let me tell a story that will, I think, demonstrate why people like Marjorie Taylor Green have a real impact. Marjorie Taylor Green used to go to the floor and file a motion to adjourn because it has to be voted on immediately. We could be in the middle of the most consequential debate and a motion to adjourn stops it because you have to vote on the motion to adjourn. I came up with the idea of “Why don’t we change our rules and require that in order to file a motion to adjourn, you must be on a House Committee, because she was removed from the House Committees. It would be a good way to stop it.

A reporter goes up to Marjorie Taylor Green and said, “What do you think of Congressman Cicilline’s proposal to change the rules to prevent you from continuing to do what you’re doing?” And she says, “You mean Congressman Mussolini?” So I do a tweet back.:

David Ciciclline: That afternoon I got a phone call from the Italian Ambassador and he said, “Mr. Congressman, I am calling to tell you I how much I appreciate that you pushed back on the invocation of Mussolini’s name.” And I said, “Mr. Ambassador, I can’t even believe you’re calling me, that you took time out of your day.” He said, “No, no, you don’t understand. This is all over the Italian press. They don’t know anything about her. All they know is she’s a sitting member of the United States Congress. And when that period, which is a very dark period in Italian history, is invoked, it’s very important that someone pushed back.”

My point is: We all know what she’s about and how kind of crazy she is and her associations with these horrible individuals and groups, but to the rest of the world, she’s a sitting member of the United States Congress. What she does and what she says has consequences. It was an important lesson to me that we can’t take for granted that everyone dismisses these folks because they hold a position and when they speak, people pay attention to what they say and do.

Dan McGowan: How concerned are you guys about this whole situation with the classified documents and President Biden kind of obscuring the bigger picture, leading to more investigations and things like that? Do you guys both agree like, that was a mistake?

David Cicilline: There’s no question that President Biden has acknowledged that those documents should not have been in the place where they were. They immediately notified the archives, immediately returned them, which is exactly what you would expect: anyone who inadvertently had documents to return them. I think it’s very obvious that it’s completely different from the former President who not only had boxes of documents, but knew about it, refused to return them, and had his lawyer lie about the fact that they no longer had them and actually refused to return them so much so that they had to get a court order, a judge, to give them the right to go in and retrieve them through a search warrant. It’s completely different. But there’s no question that our Republican colleagues are going to try to use it. I think Merrick Garland was right to appoint a special counsel just to make sure that no one had any questions about it.

I expect that they’ll conduct a swift review. If you’re asking me, “Do I think my Republican colleagues will misuse it and try to deflect from a lot of other things?” The answer is yes. It’s kind of funny to watch some of my Republican friends, who were dismissive of all of the activity of the former president in taking these documents, refusing to return them, denying that he had them, and still refuse to return them over a period of 18 months – they thought it was insignificant. And now, of course, when inadvertently President Biden is in possession of some documents, it has become absolutely the most serious violation and worthy of a congressional investigation. I think the American people are smarter than that. They know the difference between the two, they see the hypocrisy. President Biden handled it exactly the way you would expect a President to handle it: Report it immediately, turn them over immediately and to collaborate with any review of the situation.

[Note: Since this interview more documents were found to be in the possession of President Biden and documents were found in the possession of former Vice President Michael Pence.]

Uprise RI: The war in Ukraine. Are you worried about the new Congress not being able to deal with that and have you seen pushback against investing American dollars in that effort?

David Cicilline: We have, sadly, a number of Republican members in the House, who we fondly describe as the Pro-Russia caucus, who have been very open about their admiration of Vladimir Putin and their opposition to supporting the Ukrainian people in this fight. I think Margarie Taylor Green said, if Republicans take control, not one more penny will go to Ukraine. I don’t think that will be correct, but I think there’s a lot of reason for concern. I think we’ve had good, strong, bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. I think everyone understands that this is not just about Ukraine, it’s about freedom and democracy around the world. And the rest of the cadre of tyrants and kleptocrats and authoritarian leaders are watching to see the resolve of not only the Europeans but the United States and other democracy loving countries to see how committed we are to this fight because this won’t be the end if Vladimir Putin is allowed to go into a country by force and redraw the lines of that country. No country in Europe and no country in the world is safe from that kind of aggression. There’s been strong bipartisan support. I think we have the responsibility in Congress to continue to make the case why it matters, not just to the Ukrainian people, but to the world. So long as the Ukrainians, in my view, are willing to fight and die for their freedom, we have the responsibility to support them in every way that we can in that fight.

Seth Magaziner: I agree. It is clearly in America’s interest that Ukraine be successful in this effort. You cannot allow not only Vladimir Putin, but other dictators around the world to feel that they can invade a peaceful democratic nation without consequence. They cannot be allowed to succeed. I think that this is an area where the loudest voices in the room on the Republican side do not represent the majority. There are absolutely far right elements – Marjorie Taylor Green, Tucker Carlson, others – who are unabashedly pro-Putin and siding with a repressive dictator over a democratic ally. But I don’t think that represents most Republicans. It certainly doesn’t represent most Americans. So my hope is that the bipartisan support for Ukraine will continue in the next Congress – but it’s going to be rockier because after the Speakership race, the Marjorie Taylor Greens of the world feel emboldened and they’re going to be vocal.

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