WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow thinks there’s still plenty of room to find bipartisan compromise in Congress, despite the near-constant political warfare on Capitol Hill.
The Lansing Democrat just kicked off her 19th year in the Senate, where she’s the top Democrat on the agriculture committee and the chair of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. She’s also the senior member of the entire Michigan Democratic congressional delegation.
Stabenow won re-election last year and now her partner in the U.S. Senate, Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.), is up in 2020.
She talked to the Michigan Advance in her Washington office this week about the chatter that Peters could be facing a primary challenge from his left — although one of the top prospects, former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed, has said he’s not interested.
Stabenow helped usher through the sweeping $867 billion farm bill last year that received broad bipartisan support.
Last week, she announced new legislation to allow people between the ages of 50 and 64 to buy into Medicare, which is now available only to those 65 and over. While there’s been enthusiasm for the idea in the Democratic-controlled U.S. House, it’s another story for the GOP-led U.S. Senate.
Stabenow sat down with the Advance to chat about finding common ground with Republicans, the 2020 election and her last flight with the late U.S. Rep. John Dingell, who died on Feb. 7 after a battle with cancer.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
Michigan Advance: You just released a new Medicare bill. How confident are you about its ultimate passage?
Stabenow: I think it will have initially a harder time in the Senate. We don’t yet have the bipartisan support. … I’m very excited in the House though, with the new House majority that this will be seeing a hearing and hopefully passing in the House and giving us a chance to look at it in the Senate.
Michigan Advance: In this Senate, where bipartisan compromise is so hard to find, how did you do it on the farm bill?
Stabenow: I work really hard to have good relationships across the aisle. It’s not that I agree with everything all the time, but I’m always looking for areas where I can agree with someone. My theory is you look for one thing you can agree with somebody on and try to get that done, and then you look for something else where you can work with somebody and get that done.
Michigan Advance: How can the Senate get back to that spirit of bipartisanship?
Stabenow: I think it really happens one relationship at a time … It really is about individual members working across the aisle and it’s greatly helped if you have leaders that are promoting this as well. But I think individual members have to decide they actually want to get something done.
Michigan Advance: Are you concerned that U.S. Sen. Gary Peters will face a progressive challenge [in 2020]?
Stabenow: The great thing about Senator Peters is that he’s a progressive senator. He fights for health care and is willing to stand up to special interests, and he does it in a very practical way. He and I are very much alike in that we want to get things done. We put people first, certainly both very progressive, but are also going to reach across the aisle, get things done for people.
And I think in Michigan, people really value that. … They want elected officials that aren’t going to just stand up and demagogue, but actually get things done, and Gary does that.
Michigan Advance: How do you think Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is doing so far?
Stabenow: I think she’s doing great. … She’s got to fill all these positions and she’s just working 24/7 right now, making herself accessible to people across the state but really working hard on appointments. I think she’s made some really great appointments. Her biggest challenge is that the state budget today in revenue equals what it did 20 years ago, which is shocking. And something’s got to address that.
We’ve seen tax cuts to the wealthiest Michiganders, we saw at the end of the year, the previous governor [Rick Snyder] and state Republican House and Senate chose to spend [$1.3 billion] on the way out the door on all kinds of special interest things and things to their friends and so on, to make sure there was no money available for the governor to be successful.
Michigan Advance: Michigan voted for Trump in 2016. What do Democrats need to do to turn Michigan blue in the next presidential race?
Stabenow: I think that 2018 is an example of what 2020 will be, which is, people being engaged that maybe sat the election out in 2016, didn’t think their vote mattered — when it certainly did. Those who voted for President Trump who voted for something different and then are concerned now about what has happened to their family, whether it’s the tax cuts that are really tax increases for them, or the fact that they’re seeing concerns with their jobs and so on.
So I think there are people taking another look. … Enthusiasm is at an all-time high, we saw almost presidential-year turnout in 2018 and I have no reason to believe that that is not going to continue.
Michigan Advance: Do you have a 2020 presidential candidate you’re supporting?
Stabenow: Not yet.
Michigan Advance: So many of your Senate colleagues are in the race. Are you planning to run?
Stabenow: No, I’m not planning to run, but I am right now, I am very pleased that we have so many wonderfully qualified people running. I chair a policy committee and host a lunch for the caucus every Thursday and I keep saying I’m going to host the first presidential debate in our caucus lunch.
Michigan Advance: You went to Michigan for Congressman John Dingell’s funeral?
Stabenow: I was there at the funeral and actually came back with [his wife, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell] and the family on a plane with John’s remains. So we were on a C-17 cargo plane, which is loud; you have to wear earplugs. It’s a big, sort of cavernous, open plane on the inside. I’ve ridden on those before when I was in Iraq and traveled in war-torn areas, but it’s the first time I’ve had the chance to be on an honor flight. I was very honored; I was very touched by that.