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Sen. Durbin Is Critical Of The U.S. Withdrawal From Climate Accord

U-S Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois)

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin is speaking out against the Trump administration's decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. Amanda Vinicky/NPR Illinois

NPR's Scott Simon talks to Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois about the Paris climate change agreement, health care reform and the Democrats' strategy in Congress.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The Paris climate accord is simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries.

SIMON: Several foreign leaders have called President Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord regrettable. Democrats have been using sharper language. Dick Durbin is the Democratic minority whip in the U.S. Senate. He joins us on the line now from his home in Springfield. Senator, thanks so much for being with us.

DICK DURBIN: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: The president said on Thursday that he is willing to work with Democratic leaders to negotiate what he called a better climate deal. Do you see that happening?

DURBIN: I hope that something like that does occur, but this was a fateful decision. The president said he wants to make America first. American is now dead last when it comes to the stewardship of our planet with this decision. We're going to regret this, and even more, we're going to regret what we've done to our kids and grandkids by not showing some responsibility in light of this challenge.

SIMON: Should President Obama have submitted the Paris deal to the Senate for ratification to lock it in and bind U.S. policy to that commitment?

DURBIN: I don't think it had a chance in the Senate. The Republican majority just doesn't abide by the basics when it comes to science, climate change. They are captivated by a lot of special groups - the Koch brothers, for example, who have an interest in carbon fuels and such. And it makes it very difficult for any of them to cross the Koch brothers and risk a primary. So the passage of the Paris Accord as a treaty in the Senate was not likely.

SIMON: There are coal miners in southern Illinois, as I don't have to tell you Senator Durbin. A stat I looked up this morning says 6 percent of the nation's coal is mined in Illinois. They're concerned about jobs. What do you say to them?

DURBIN: Well, I tell them that I am too. I'm concerned about good jobs that pay well and have a future. I've been down in the coal mines of southern Illinois, and it's hard to describe the machinery that is now in these coal mines. Any image that your listeners have who've never been near a coal mine is probably wrong. These massive machines called continuous miners have replaced dozens, if not hundreds, of coal miners. And they are able to technically remove this with very few people on hand. So to say this is the future, coal mine jobs and such, I think is to overstate the obvious. Technology, as well as the energy market nationwide and worldwide, has really changed the dynamics and future of coal.

SIMON: Let me ask you about another issue, and that's health care. The Senate's been working on a health care bill to replace the Affordable Care Act. Several Republicans - and I'm thinking of Senator Burr, Senator Ernst, Chuck Grassley - said this week they think an overhaul is unlikely to pass. At the same time, premiums are rising. Some insurers, or many insurers, are bowing out of the marketplaces. Don't the American people need some movement on health care?

DURBIN: They absolutely do. I voted for it - maybe one of the most important things I ever voted for. Cutting in half the percentage of Americans without health insurance was a dramatic step forward for millions of families to give them the peace of mind and protection. But it is far from perfect. We know that things need to be done. There's nothing in current law that deals with the escalating prices of drugs and pharmaceuticals.

We still don't have a public option - and I mean an option that people can choose if they wish - across this country. We need to expand the pool of those who are buying individual health insurance so we don't just attract the older and sicker people. That becomes a very expensive premium. There are things we can do as long as we do it together. The Republicans need to take repeal off the table. And if they do, the Democrats are ready to pull a chair up to the table.

SIMON: Do you have any specific policies or reforms you'd like to advance?

DURBIN: The three I mentioned deal with pharmaceuticals - make sure we have a public option that looks like Medicare all across the United States.

SIMON: Yeah, but that's all dependent, though, on the Republicans taking repeal off the table.

DURBIN: They do. If they take it off the table, then I think we can have this conversation. And I - you know, I am heartened and encouraged talking to Susan Collins and Senator Sullivan - pardon me - Senator Cassidy of Louisiana, that they are really looking at this in serious terms.

SIMON: Last question - what do you tell people the Senate's done so far this session?

DURBIN: We've basically done little. We have had a trickle of nominations from this new administration. It is just historically low the number of names they've sent us. Yes, we did send a man to the Supreme Court, and that is historic and important. When it came down to the budget, though, the budget effort fell apart among Republicans in the House. We then moved to a bipartisan approach to it and passed a budget, which finishes this year. I think that is a model that we ought to look to the future.

If we can work on a bipartisan basis for infrastructure, for real health care reform, that continues to protect people, trying to make sure we deal with something on student loans for families that are facing that burden, we can do this on a bipartisan basis. And I hope many Republicans, as we approach the election, will join us.

SIMON: Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, thanks so much.

DURBIN: Thanks, Scott.