WEBSTER GROVES, Mo. - KOMU 8 News spoke with U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, as part of our Smart Decision 2012 election series Saturday afternoon. McCaskill is the incumbent senator and faces no opposition in Tuesday's primary.
McCaskill defeated a Republican for the United States Senate seat in 2006. She was born in Rolla and lived in Houston, Lebanon and Columbia. She graduated from the University of Missouri and University of Missouri Law School and started her career as a research attorney for the Court of Appeals in Kansas City. McCaskill served in the Missouri House of Representatives from 1983 to 1988. She was the first woman elected Jackson County Prosecutor in 1992 and was elected Missouri state auditor in 1999. McCaskill was the first Missourian to defeat a sitting governor in a primary election in 2004, and she is Missouri's first woman elected to the U.S. Senate.
What makes you the best candidate qualified to be senator?
"I'm a good, old fashioned moderate Missourian. I believe the middle is really important in the United States Senate right now. We have way to many people on the far right and the far left that are playing political games and not enough people that are willing to compromise. There is a stark difference between me and my opponents as to how they view the art of compromising in the United States Senate. I think our country should be very proud of our ability to compromise in the Senate over many years, and I want to be part of that middle that finds those compromises that make policies happen, instead of just throwing political grenades."
What do you think is the biggest issue facing Missouri right now?
"I think the biggest issue facing Missouri and facing our country is obviously this very different economic climate that we are really trying to make progress on. It is really hard. We fell into a huge, huge canyon. When President Obama took office we were losing six hundred, seven hundred thousand jobs a month. We've now created millions of jobs, and we have created private sector jobs every month for 28 months in a row. We are making progress, but we have to make sure that we continue to support the middle class, not the super wealthy in this country... but the middle class... middle class families... kids who want to go to college. We need to focus our priorities there, not on protecting big oil companies and the mega-wealthy in this country. That really is what the differences are right now. Are we going to have a balanced approach where we cut spending and we focus on small businesses and middle class families, or are we going to continue to embrace the polices that the Republicans want to embrace, which is taking care of those that have so much and taking care of those that have all the power."
How would you put more Missourians back to work?
"It's difficult for government to put people back to work because we need our government to be smaller. We need to spend less. I've been a co-sponsor of spending caps along with one of the most conservative Republicans in the Senate. I led the fight against earmarks. I've used my auditing skills to find billions of dollars of waste and abuse in the Pentagon and in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I believe it's really important that we get our fiscal house in order. We can't do that by just the government spending a lot of money creating jobs. We need to do it by creating a climate that favors small businesses, making sure regulations are not too aggressive and making sure the tax code is fair. We've got huge companies in this country that pay no taxes, and then you've got a family that owns a dry cleaning shop that pays a lot of taxes. That's not fair. That is not supporting and promoting the middle class and small businesses. That's the best way for us to get at economic recovery is to make sure we're focusing on how we can help them."
Can you describe the nation's economic focus for the future and how you would take us there?
"I think that we need to have a balanced approach. I think we have to get our fiscal house in order, but we can't just turn out the lights on the government. We can't just say we're not going to pass a highway bill like the Tea Party tried to do, or we're not going to pass a farm bill like the Tea Party is doing right now, or we're going to shut down the post offices like the Tea Party wants to do. We need to get on a glide path to lower spending, but we need to cut spending. We also need to make sure that our tax code is fair, which means maybe we're not going to have an interest deduction on people's second home... no more interest deductions on yachts. Some of the things that are in the tax code now that favor people that, frankly, they don't really create a lot of jobs and it just makes the tax code unfair... having the very wealthy pay a little more. Go back to the tax rate that the very wealthy had in the Clinton years when we were creating millions and millions of jobs and balancing the budget. If creating a little more tax liability for the wealthy and working toward a balanced budget is a good way to kill jobs, how come we created so many when we did that during the presidency of Bill Clinton. I think this balanced approach where we can bring down our deficit and bring down our debt over time... I'd like to see us reduce our debt by four to five trillion dollars over the next 10 years, and that is very doable if people will compromise and come to the middle."
The nation faces many budget challenges in the coming years. How would you work to meet those challenges?
"We have to cut spending. We have to collect a little more revenue. We have to look at our entitlement programs. I don't think we need to by buying prescription drugs for Donald Trump. Right now, the federal government is buying prescription drugs for even the very wealthiest in our country. We don't need to be doing that. So this balanced approach of doing all three legs of the stool. Work on entitlements, cut spending, and make the tax code fair, flatter but realize some more revenue. That is the right way to go forward. At the same time, we can't do what the Tea Party wants us to do and what my opponents want to do. We can't give up investing on our infrastructure. In Missouri we have water projects that need to be done. We've got roads and bridges that need to be built. We can't give up on investing in higher education. My opponents want to do away with student loans in terms of the federal government helping. That's a huge number of kids in America that won't go to college if we do that. We have to keep investing in education and research. We have to keep our Pell Grants in place. Investing in research, investing in education and investing in our infrastructure... we can't quit doing that. That is why we are the strongest country in the... world. But we do need to cut spending, and we can do that if we have a balanced approach."
How would you work with Congress to accomplish your agenda?
"I'm really proud of the fact that the far left and the far right have both been mad at me. I'm proud of the fact that so many of my Republican colleagues have spoken out and talked about how hard I've worked on reform and bringing down spending. A very conservative senator from Alabama, Jeff Sessions and I, long before people were talking about capping federal spending, we were trying to cap federal spending and we came very close to getting it passed. We need to cap federal spending. We also need to make sure that we don't go back to earmarking. I led the fight, and people laughed at me in my party when I said that we needed to stop earmarks. But, you know, we got it done. This is where I would compliment some people in the Tea Party because I think their very loud voices on earmarks certainly helped. I've worked in a bi-partisan way. I've been working on a bill to make sure the U.N. doesn't regulate the Internet with Marco Rubio. I'm working on a bill to make tariffs more fair for businesses with Republican Senator Rob Portman. I'm working on legislation with Senator Kelly Ayotte to deal with some of the waste and abuse that's gone on at the G.S.A. I think those three people are being talked about for being vice presidential candidates for the Republican nominee. So, clearly my Republican colleagues want to and have worked with me, and we've worked together effectively. I think that's what most Missourians want. I don't think they want us on opposite ends of the room yelling at each other. I think they want us to get something done and quit worrying so much about winning elections and worry more about them."
As President Obama's healthcare reforms begin to go into effect, how should Missouri react?
"I think they should give them a chance. There is so much misinformation out there. People tell me all the time things about the healthcare bill that just aren't true. I think it's been used as a political two-by-four. I think people don't realize that if you have your insurance, you get to keep it... that it's going to be private insurance not government insurance... that people will have the ability to access this insurance on an exchange. We can go across state lines. States can join together. If you can't get insurance now because you're just one person working for yourself, you've got a place where you can pool the risk so your costs are going to go down. You get the same risks as somebody who works at a great big company where they've got lots of people where they can share that risk. We're actually bringing insurance companies to heel by telling them you can't spend fifty cents of every dollar on hiring more people to deny claims. They now have to spend eighty cents of every dollar they collect on healthcare, and if they don't, they have to send the money back to the policy holders. You'll be able to get insurance if you've had pre-existing conditions. I know people don't like the mandate, but think about this for a minute: If we're going to let people get insurance that have had the nerve to be sick before, who's going to buy insurance before they get sick if there is no mandate? Who is going to say ‘oh I'll go get insurance' if they know they can wait until they're sick to get it? We have a mandate now. It's called the emergency room, and people are choosing sometimes to not buy insurance because they know they can get free healthcare at the emergency room because ultimately at the end of the day the hospital doesn't collect on most of those bills. Who is paying for that now? We are. If we can provide a place where people can get accessible and affordable health insurance, that's going to bring down all of our rates. It does not bust the budget because it actually reduces the deficit because of the way the program is designed. I think people have a lot of strong opinions about this legislation. I know how unpopular it is. I know I could go home over it, but I know if Missourians would give it a chance, they're going to be pleasantly surprised it's not what they think it is. I'm hoping that will come to pass. I'm hoping people will have a chance to actually see how it works because at the end of the day people need to realize this was a Republican idea. This came from a Republican think tank. That's why Governor Romney put it in in Massachusetts because it was a Republican idea. The only reason it has become so unpopular is because it's become politically easy to use it to try to win elections. I'm hoping Missourians see through that and give it a chance."
What will be different once you've served another term in this office?
"I think I will just have a chance to do more of the work. I've done an awful lot of work helping veterans, cleaning up veteran's healthcare, getting more benefits for veterans, getting college benefits for modern-day veterans who fought courageously in Iraq and Afghanistan. I've worked hard on reforming contracting in the Pentagon and in war. I'd like to see some of those efforts through. There is contracting waste all over government. It's one of the places we could really cut the budget seriously by getting a handle. What George Bush did, he said he wanted a smaller government; so what he started doing was contracting. Government exploded because of contracting, and nobody was even tracking those costs. There's real money that can be saved if we keep turning the screws on contracting. I was able to get a subcommittee created, that I chair. I also look forward to continuing to chair the subcommittee on military readiness for the armed services committee. We have many challenges across the world and we have to make sure our military reigns strongest in the nation. There's just more work that needs to be done. I think, maybe most importantly, I'd like to remain part of that moderate middle. I'd like to remain part of the Senate where both Democrats and Republicans come together, ones that don't always agree with their party and forge those compromises. I've been honored to be a part of that middle that has forged compromises. We have been able to get things done because people were willing to compromise. I'd like to go back and be part of that because, if my opponents were elected, they're going to be part of a caucus that wants to shut it all down... just shut it down. I don't think that's what Missourians want. This is a pretty clear choice between 'it's my way or the highway' and 'why don't we figure out how we can build some more highways.'"
Is there anything else you would like to add?
"Between my husband and I, we have seven kids. I have five grandchildren. I do think it's important that Missourians know I think about those kids. I think about what our country is going to be. Are we still going to have a middle class? Are we still going to be a country that the rest of the world admires? ...because we are inclusive and tolerant and we're free and we let all opinions be heard and we let everyone speak their mind, but at the end of the day, we know how to compromise. That's what I hope we can hold onto, and I think it's important for my grandchildren and I think it's important for all Missourians' grandchildren that we realize that just yelling at each other from opposite ends of the spectrum, we're holding onto an idea and saying ‘I refuse to compromise,' That's not always the best way. There are principles that you've got to hold onto... that you don't compromise, but there are so many things that are really capable of great compromise. I'm hoping that's the United States Senate that survives, and I hope that's the United States Senate that my children and grandchildren also can look to in the future."