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Jim McGovern Assumes Top Role As Dems Take The House07:58
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Rep. Jim McGovern, Congressman for the Second District of Massachusetts. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Rep. Jim McGovern, Congressman for the Second District of Massachusetts. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern takes over as chairman of the House Rules Committee when the Democrats assume the majority next week in Washington.

McGovern, a Worcester Democrat who currently serves as the committee’s ranking member, will get to decide which bills will be considered, and when they’ll come to the floor — making him one of the most powerful lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

McGovern joined Morning Edition to discuss his new position, the ongoing partial government shutdown and how House Democrats plan to take on President Trump in the new year.

You can listen to the conversation here, or read highlights below. The highlights have been lightly edited.

Bob Oakes: So the first thing you’re dealing with when you get back is the partial federal shutdown. What’s it going to take reach a compromise with the president on this?

Jim McGovern: I thought we had reached a compromise. The continuing resolution was agreed to by Democrats and Republicans and the president said he was in favor of it. The Senate passed it overwhelmingly; every Democrat and every Republican voted for it. We were prepared to vote it out of the House. And then I think the president was watching "Fox and Friends" and Ann Coulter, and he had a change of heart. So he had a temper tantrum and shut the government down. This is a Trump shutdown and he has to decide how he wants to end it.

Let's talk about the upheaval in Washington: President Trump’s surprise withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria; General Mattis out as defense secretary; the stock market extremely volatile as the president attacks the Federal Reserve; news reports saying the president is increasingly isolated, watching more TV than ever before. What concerns you most?

I think the president is unhinged. I’m worried about his erratic behavior and that's why I'm hoping that come Jan. 3, the Democrats and Republicans are going to come together and do their job. And that means keeping the lights on, keeping the government running, and checking this president when he does irresponsible things.

Do you have any hope that he'll rethink his decision to pull troops out of Syria and to begin to roll U.S. troops out of Afghanistan?

I've for a long time believed that we need to reassess our role in Afghanistan. Having said that, my position has never been that we should just wake up one day and pull everybody out. We need to figure out what the strategy is moving forward. And this president has no strategy. It's like he wakes up one morning and decides to end our involvement; he just ends it. Tomorrow he may wake up and want to go to war with Iran. I mean, who knows. But there's not a lot of thought being given to any of his decisions and I worry that a lot of the adults in the room, and General Mattis in particular, are leaving. This president is alienating our allies and he's cozying up to the worst dictators in the world.

Let's talk about immigration issues. You visited El Salvador and Honduras back in August to learn firsthand about some of the violent circumstances that many migrants are trying to flee from — one of many trips you've taken to the region. The president cracks down on migrants; there's been a lack of movement on immigration in Congress. This has got to be both frustrating and disappointing to you.

It is terribly frustrating. Look, we need comprehensive immigration reform. And the minimum Congress ought to do is give the president a bill as soon as humanly possible to protect the Dreamers and to protect those who have Temporary Protected Status — people mostly from El Salvador and Honduras who have been here for over 20 years. When I was in El Salvador, Honduras, most of the people I talked to who were talking about coming to the United States were doing so because they were fearful for their lives and the lives of their children. And if I was in El Salvador and my kids were threatened, you bet your life I’d do everything I could to get them the hell out of there.

Let's move on to the Democratic takeover of the House. Coming up next week you said House Democrats will investigate and provide oversight of the Trump administration. What do you think that is going to look like?

Here's the deal on investigations: Committees have oversight responsibilities whether it's the Resources Committee overseeing the Department of Interior, whether it's Intelligence overseeing the Russian investigation. But we also need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. I want to see an infrastructure bill passed. I want to see us move forward on immigration reform. I want to see us address the rising cost of college education for our young people. I want to expand health care protections.

Do you hope there will be impeachment hearings targeting the president?

I think we need to wait to see what the Mueller investigation finally comes up with. I mean, I voted twice to send preachment resolutions to the Judiciary Committee to move it forward. I personally think this president is unfit for office. But that said, if there were going to be an impeachment, you’d need Republicans to join in, and we're not there yet.

The dysfunction of government — in the big picture, will the Democratic takeover of the House change that at all or exacerbate it?

I think we're going to end the dysfunction. I will be the chairman of the Rules Committee, and one of the first things we have to do is vote on a rules package which I'm writing as we speak. Republicans have sent us major pieces of legislation that have never gone through any committees or any hearings. That's just wrong. So we're going to require that hearings and markups happen before bills come to the Rules Committee. We're going to require that you have 72 hours — three days — to read the bills. As chairman of the Rules Committee, I'm going to try to be more accommodating to allow not just amendments that I agree with to be debated on the floor, but even to extend the opportunity for amendments that I strongly disagree with. I was a staffer and I worked for Joe Moakley, who was the chairman of the Rules Committee. He ran the Rules Committee in a way that I would like to replicate. It was more accommodating, more collegial. It helped create a climate where people actually got along and respected one another. The Republicans have done the opposite. The House of Representatives under this leadership has become the most closed Congress in the history of our country. I don't want that to be my legacy.

This segment aired on December 28, 2018.

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Bob Oakes has been WBUR's Morning Edition anchor since 1992.

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