US Senators Chris Murphy and Rob Portman debate at GW | Today

By Nick Erickson

In an increasingly unfamiliar scene in an increasingly polarized political climate, a Democrat and a Republican civically discussed political issues in a public forum as Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rob Portman (R -Ohio) took the stage Monday night. at George Washington University’s Jack Morton Auditorium to fight inflation, gun control, and immigration, in addition to responding to news and breaking news.

Monday’s event, hosted by CBS Congressional Correspondent Nikole Killion, was the second episode of The Senate projecta series of three debates between American senators supported by the Bipartisan Policy Center, Orrin G. Hatch Foundation and Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Ver.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (RS.C.) were the first participants in June, while the final debate will take place later this fall in Utah with two senators who will be named later.

The Senate Project’s goal with this series of debates is to “reintroduce the culture of seeking common ground and consensus” during a time of great polarization that has eroded public confidence in government.

“We are going through such a difficult time where conversations like this are unfortunately the exception rather than the rule,” said the director of strategic initiatives at the GW School of Media and Public Affairs. Frank Sesno, who gave a keynote address. “We’re trying to tell our students here that this is the future, finding ways to be at a table together, yes to engaging where we disagree, but also looking for ways for us to agree, compromise and find common ground. This is how we must move forward if we are to prosper as a nation over time.

Both senators have been involved in bipartisan politics throughout their careers. In fact, they co-wrote the Anti-Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act in March 2016 in response to Russia’s deliberately inaccurate portrayal of its military interventions in eastern Ukraine and Syria.

More recently, the two came together and signed bipartisan legislation that includes the Safer Communities Act fight against armed violence, Infrastructure Investment and Employment Act and the CHIPS and scientific law that encourages strategic investments to secure US supply chains. Portman and Murphy also indicated that they would support the Respect for Marriage Act.

“We’ve passed some really good laws over the last two years,” Portman said. “It’s never perfect. The infrastructure bill wasn’t exactly as I would have written it, nor was the gun bill exactly as Chris would have written it. But we have a responsibility to actually serve the people and do something that helps move the process forward.

Murphy viewed the gun bill more as a compromise because it did not include a ban on assault rifles or universal background checks as he had hoped. But coming together at least moves the needle on key issues, he said.

“Despite how broken this institution looks from the outside, when you put the gun bill with the potential of the respect for marriage act, the infrastructure bill, the CHIPS act, it’s a pretty impressive list of bipartisan achievements in a 50-50 Senate at a time of deep division in the American public,” Murphy said. “All of this, despite the disagreements we have today, gives me hope.”

CBS Congressional Correspondent Nikole Killion moderated Monday’s debate with Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), left, and Rob Portman (R-Ohio). (William Atkins/GW Today)

While Murphy and Portman found common ground on Monday, as they have done many times during their Senate careers, they shared differing views on every major issue discussed during their debate. Oxford-style, where they each had three minutes to address an issue, as well as a 90-second rebuttal period.

Regarding inflation, Portman said he opposes the current reconciliation bill because of the tax provisions, claiming that it would be a mistake to raise taxes at a time when people are struggling with inflationary pressures. Murphy argued that inflation was the consequence of demand returning after COVID-19 restrictions and a fast-growing economy that held steady. 3.6% unemployment rate for four months.

On gun control, Murphy thinks there was a lot left on the table. He said AR-15s did not belong on the street and expressed concern about the amount of illegal weapons in circulation. Portman said the most important piece of the Safe Communities Act is the part that deals with mental health.

Both men agreed that immigration reform was both fair and humane. Portman criticized the Biden administration for virtually ending deportations of people who entered the country illegally, in addition to expressing concern about the amount of drugs — fentanyl in particular — entering the country. Murphy slammed Republicans — mentioning he didn’t put Portman in that category — who don’t seem to want to fix the issue but keep it open as a political wedge. The senators agreed that immigration is part of the fabric of the country and hope to find common ground to help those who come legally in search of economic opportunity and new beginnings.

In a more traditional Q&A session, Killion asked Portman why he voted against closure on the PACTE law extend Department of Veterans Affairs health care to veterans exposed to fire pits. Portman said he wanted to debate the bill and allow an amendment that would make technical changes in terms of accounting for funds. Portman said he would vote for final passage of the bill whether the amendment was there or not, but wanted the opportunity to debate. Murphy asked why so many Republicans returned from a previous vote on the same bill and wondered if it had to do with the announcement of a climate change bill. He said the American people would not tolerate this kind of game.

Tuesday, the Senate past the PACT Act with a vote of 86 to 11. Portman indeed vote for the final adoption of the bill.

The debate also began when President Joe Biden addressed the nation to announce the death of al-Qaeda leader and 9/11 mastermind Ayman al-Zawahiri by a US drone strike, which Killion asked for comment. Both senators applauded the administration’s execution of the drone strike.

In closing, both Murphy and Portman offered some insight into other opportunities to get together and how to get there more frequently. Both agreed reform the law on the electoral count that would modernize how Congress tallies electoral votes to accurately reflect each state’s vote for president should be a priority. Murphy learned in this divided Senate how important relationships are and hopes politicians try not to challenge everything through social media. Portman stressed that the infrastructure deal took a “middle-of-the-road” approach with deals led by rank-and-file senators rather than leaders.

While the two senators disagreed on stage throughout the night, they also found common ground and debated civically for a capacity crowd and a live C-SPAN audience. Bipartisan Policy Center founder and president Jason Grumet hoped the presentation would be a sign of things to come.

“We believe dignified differences are the first step to moving the conversation forward,” Grumet said. “The winners tonight are all of us who get to see this kind of exchange between two of our nation’s most productive leaders.”

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