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Rep. Jeff Fortenberry Outlines What He Sees As Bipartisan Opportunities For Congress


OK, the attorney general's resignation comes less than 24 hours after the Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives and expanded their majority in the Senate. We're going to talk about all of that now with Republican Congressman Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska. Welcome.

JEFF FORTENBERRY: Thank you, Ailsa - a pleasure to talk to you.

CHANG: I will get to the midterms in a second. I promise. But first, what is your reaction to the attorney general's sudden resignation today? I mean, does Sessions' departure give you any concern about special counsel Robert Mueller's ability to complete his investigation?

FORTENBERRY: Well, I thought you might divert the interview to that question. And let me tell you a brief story.

CHANG: It is the news of the day (laughter).

FORTENBERRY: I understand. Let me tell you a brief story about an interaction I once had with Senator Sessions. In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti, we discovered that there was a quirk, a missing piece of the law. Haitian orphans who were already in the adoption process had no legal status in the United States. I

took the idea of the bill that we had written in the House, and I walked it over to the judicial chairman, Sessions, their committee chair, and just asked for a meeting. He spoke to me for 20 minutes about the bill. And at the end of it, in that unique Southern accent, he said, Jeff, I'll help you. And he shepherded that bill to give Haitian orphans legal status in the United States. By the way, and in the...

CHANG: Sounds like you regard him as - you regard him with fondness. Do you regret that he's departing in the middle of this administration?

FORTENBERRY: I had great respect for him. He was very gentlemanly. He listened to the concerns I had in that particular measure, helped get it - shepherd it through. Clearly he and the president had some differences in the beginning, but I want to wish him well. I think he was an outstanding public servant.

CHANG: Are you struck by the speed with which he departed? I mean, he's been in this job for just about two years.

FORTENBERRY: Well, I don't know the average tenure of a Cabinet member in any administration. It seems to be that two years is a reasonable length of time in a lot of administrations. But clearly there was some duress here, and he resigned. Ultimately he does work for the president, and that's the decision that was made.

CHANG: All right, well, this move may put some pressure on House Democrats to use their oversight authority now that they have the majority in the House. Earlier today, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a warning to House Democrats, saying, quote, "presidential harassment" didn't work for Republicans with President Clinton, and so it's not going to work for Democrats now. That said, Congressman, are there are some topics you think are worth investigating with this administration that you'd like to see House Democrats lead probes into?

FORTENBERRY: Frankly that's the paradigm of the political narrative that you and the media keep repeating. I frankly think the world is screaming for meaning and that the country is exhausted by the political polemics, and they simply want something, like we in Nebraska say, to get done - creative solutions, create a space for human interaction, fighting for principle but also looking for consensus. And if the House of Representatives is completely distracted from the ordinary work of trying to obtain national security, keeping the guardrails up for economic vitality and going into the deeper issues of how we restore some vitality in civic life, I think we're all going to disappoint the American people.

CHANG: You - are you saying then that it would be misguided of House Democrats to launch investigations into President Trump next year?

FORTENBERRY: Well, I think a better question for you to ask me is, what can we get done in the House of Representatives?

CHANG: All right, what can you get done, you think, with...

FORTENBERRY: Well, we...

CHANG: ...A divided Congress now and Republicans in the minority in the House?

FORTENBERRY: Well, for instance, I live in ag country. Farming and ranching is critical to the well-being of America. We have the lowest food prices in the industrialized world. We export food and feed hungry people all over the world. We have vibrant food security programs in our own country to protect vulnerable people. We need to get a farm bill done. And I think we have traditionally approached...

CHANG: Well, let me ask you this. I mean, that's going to take a lot of compromise. The conservative contingent in your caucus grew proportionally after the last - after last night. There are just fewer moderate Republicans like you in the House. Are you concerned about managing the infighting in your caucus in the 20 seconds we have left?

FORTENBERRY: Well, again, let's watch this word moderate. If you mean moderate in the sense that I'm looking for consensus on how to get done, let's take the label. But don't be so quick to define everybody into categories. The farm bill, for instance, transcends...

CHANG: All right.

FORTENBERRY: ...The divisions in politics and tries to get to the heart of, how do we create...

CHANG: I'm...

FORTENBERRY: ...Risk stabilization measures to keep America food secure? So there are some things embedded in the farm bill that actually I wrote, the Rural Health Insurance Act, that would actually attempt to create some space for new rural health insurance dynamics and lower costs - already been in dialogue with Democrats on this, would hate to see it become a proxy for the Affordable Care Act fight because it's not. It's simply trying to help people with new, viable models for health insurance. That's one area. I have another bill...

CHANG: But I'm thinking about legislation that there's wide bipartisan on, say like infrastructure, all right? That was considered optimistically as one issue both sides could agree on in the first two years of the Trump administration. That went nowhere even when Republicans controlled both chambers. Now with a divided Congress, how optimistic are you about stuff getting done?

FORTENBERRY: Please don't be dismissive of the important potential bipartisanship around a farm bill. This is one of the most important pieces of legislation that America passes every five years because it keeps stabilization measures in place and food security measures in place for the benefit of America and the entire world. Secondly, we're leveraging that for a good, potentially, hopefully bipartisan initiative to help with rural insurance costs.

I have another initiative that goes to the deeper value of what we've been hinting about in this conversation about how we get back on track and get things done and appeal to a deeper sense of stewardship. I have a bill that would actually get in front of the Endangered Species Act. It's called Recovering America's Wildlife Act - 120 bipartisan cosponsors - that actually takes money from federal lands and reploughs it back into another form of trust by creating a continuity of habitat that protects the environment...

CHANG: Let me...

FORTENBERRY: ...Protects species, gets us off the 1-yard line and creates recreational opportunities...

CHANG: Let me ask you, though.

FORTENBERRY: ...For the community.

CHANG: Let me ask you. There are a number of your colleagues who have never been in the minority in the House. As someone who has been in the minority at one point, do you have any advice for them? What is the hardest thing for them to probably get used to as being in the minority now?

FORTENBERRY: Well, you may be shocked to hear this, and most Americans would given the drama that you and the media constantly play out about the tensions in Congress, but there are a lot of...

CHANG: You don't think there are tensions.

FORTENBERRY: Well, politically and philosophically of course, but there are a lot of good human interactions. I'll give you a small example. A couple of months back, a...

CHANG: OK, we have about 15 seconds, just...


CHANG: ...So you know.

FORTENBERRY: I went to former Speaker Nancy Pelosi. We have very distinct philosophical perspectives on issues. But we have a friendship.


FORTENBERRY: She always asks me about my children. They go to see her when they're in Washington.

CHANG: And we are...

FORTENBERRY: We're talking about a new issue...

CHANG: ...Going...

FORTENBERRY: ...That would actually provide...

CHANG: ...To (laughter) have to leave it there.

FORTENBERRY: ...An educational dynamic in Normandy.

CHANG: Thank you so much. That was Republican Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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