MS. TUMULTY: Welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Karen Tumulty. I’m a columnist here at The Washington Post, and today our guest is United States Secretary of Commerce and former Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo.

Welcome Secretary Raimondo.

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Can you hear me, Secretary Raimondo? We seem to have an audio problem here.

Okay, I think we're going to go ahead and try to get this fixed. We seem to not be making this connection, but we do have a lot to talk about here, today, so please stick with us for just a few moments.

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MS. TUMULTY: Welcome back. I’m Karen Tumulty here at The Washington Post, and welcome to Washington Post Live. We’re going to start this all over again, and I’m going to take it right from the top. Our guest today is United States Secretary of Commerce and former Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo. Thank you so much for joining us and your patience while we got our audio problems straightened out there.

SEC. RAIMONDO: Good morning. It’s good to be with you. I think we’ve all gotten used to the technical glitches. So, happy to be here.

MS. TUMULTY: Well, I wanted to start off by asking you about a couple of negotiations that are going on, on Capitol Hill, right now that you are right in the middle of. And the first is this sort of infrastructure package where you have been doing a lot of bridge building, including across party lines, to pass an infrastructure bill that, you know, the president has said he is very hopeful that he is going to get significant Republican support for. But today we’re hearing of bumps in the road and some of the Republicans who were for it saying they’re concerned that the pay-fors aren’t there. Could you kind of update us on where things stand?

SEC. RAIMONDO: Yeah, thank you. So, as you said, the president came into office promising to find common ground with Republicans wherever we could, making good on that promise--he’s making good on that promise. And we are continuing to work in a bipartisan fashion. And I would say things continue to be on track. In fact, just yesterday I spoke with several Republican members of Congress, and they’re working in good faith. There are legitimate issues to work through. We are at the table in good faith. They’re at the table in good faith. And as of this morning, I still feel optimistic that we are on path to deliver on the president’s agenda.

MS. TUMULTY: Could you talk a little bit about your own experiences in trying to do an infrastructure bipartisan bridge building? You for instance recently last month took a trip to Mississippi with Roger Wicker, Republican senator who’s ranking on the committee that oversees your branch of the--your part of the government. What is this like, and how receptive are you finding Republicans on Capitol Hill?

SEC. RAIMONDO: First, I have found them to be very receptive. And secondly, I think it’s essential. I will say, having been a governor for six years, when you’re in the executive branch, you learn that if you want to get things done, if you want to push through your agenda, you have to work with the legislative branch. And by the way, that’s a good thing. That’s how our democracy was designed. It’s how it’s intended to work. No one is better at that than President Biden. And we on his team have been directed by him to engage across party lines with the House and the Senate. It’s the only way to get things done. So, for me, it’s very natural. It how I worked as governor.

Here's the reality. Each and every member of the House and Senate has been elected and sent to Washington by their constituents. They’re here, I think, by and large, with the best of intentions to deliver for their constituents. We cannot expect them to rubber stamp any particular plan, which is to say they have legitimate questions, legitimate concerns, legitimate, you know, issues they wanted addressed, and it’s our job to address them. So, what have I been doing? As Commerce secretary, there’s been a lot of questions for me around exactly how much money do we need to provide universal affordable broadband. How precisely will that be administered by the administration? How do you take into account affordability? How do you take into account competition? All good questions.

So, what our job is, is to stay at the table, answer the questions, find common ground. And that’s what we are doing--without compromising on the core vision of the president’s as it relates to broadband. Every American deserves broadband. Every American deserves broadband that is affordable and accessible.

MS. TUMULTY: So, what kind of timeline are we talking about here? How long do you think this is going to take?

SEC. RAIMONDO: You know, we want to move quickly. We’re still digging out of the pandemic. I just mentioned broadband. I mean, millions of Americans still don’t have broadband. That needs to happen immediately. The same is true for infrastructure. The same is true for all that we’re working on.

Also, the truth is everybody knows momentum matters, right? We have some momentum. It’s in everybody’s interest to keep it going. Things slow down in August. So, we want to move, and there’s no reason that we shouldn’t. The president has been admirable, I think, in his willingness to compromise in order to deliver. What he’s been kind of unwilling to accept is inaction, you know, leaving for the break with nothing happening. And so, we’ve got to stay at the table and keep pushing. The time to get something done is now. If you are--you know, yesterday I talked with some folks who--one woman who was a caregiver to a young man who is disabled. They don’t want to wait. They shouldn’t have to wait. They deserve action now. And so, we ought to stay at the table and deliver.

MS. TUMULTY: And that of course brings us to the second set of negotiations that’s happening on the Hill, which is the president’s bigger, broader, you know, more ambitious program, the American Families Plan, sometimes referred to as the care economy. I think when people hear about these things, you know, making childcare more affordable, giving people more opportunities for paid leave, taking more account of caregiving needs late in life, they think, you know, this sounds like a good thing to do, a compassionate thing to do.

Your job is competitiveness. Can you talk a little bit about how these--dealing with these day-to-day problems that Americans face in their lives affects also this country’s ability to compete with other countries?

SEC. RAIMONDO: Yes, thank you. So absolutely central to our ability to compete is making sure that we unlock all of the talent in our labor force. We will not be able to compete--we will not be able to compete if women cannot participate fully in the labor force, nor will we be able to compete unless every American has access to the job training and skills that they need to, you know, be productive in today’s economy.

By the way, today’s economy is, you know, more digital and more technical, which means that, you know, we must--Congress must come to the table and work with us to pass the president’s agenda as it relates to job training, apprenticeships, community--affordable community college. It’s--we need to unlock the full potential of America’s labor market, which means folks need skills. Not just, you know, well-heeled people who can afford expensive private four-year colleges. Everybody.

Furthermore, women--we’ve seen it--have dropped out of the labor force in record numbers like nothing you or I have ever seen before. Why? Because schools closed, childcare centers closed, homecare workers couldn’t get to work, and women shouldered the burden of taking care of children, our elderly loved ones, our disabled loved ones, which means they couldn’t work. They couldn’t hold down a job.

I talk to CEOs of big and small companies every single day. Every one of them tells me their top priority is finding the talent they need to grow. And they’re all struggling with making sure that the women who they want to hire or want to promote can be productive, which means we need childcare, we need universal public pre-K, we need homecare infrastructure that works. That’s not, as you say, just a good thing to do. That is essential if we’re going to be competitive in this economy.

MS. TUMULTY: So where do things stand? Because this is going to--it is presumed this is going to have to pass under budget rules. The only way you get around filibuster is it passes under what they call reconciliation budget rules, which means in the Senate you are going to have to have every single Democrat on board this. This goes from Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders who wants a big broad expansive package, to getting people like Joe Manchin on board. So where do things stand, bringing in the entire Democratic Caucus in the Senate?

SEC. RAIMONDO: Yeah. So, this is not easy. This is a tough putt to be sure. But if anybody can do it, it’s President Biden, who is the master of getting things done in the Senate, in the House, across the aisle. I am optimistic. We are working it all day, every day.

Here’s why I’m optimistic, because people realize the stake are very high. Very high. We have deferred investments in infrastructure for decades, and people realize it’s time that we make these investments. We are in a--in a very vulnerable place as it relates to, for example, semiconductors. You know, we don’t--we don’t make any leading-edge semiconductor chips in America. That is a national security risk and an economic security risk--a security risk as it relates to our ability to compete with China. That has to happen. You know, I could go through the whole list. The point is, I feel it when I talk to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. They want to get something done.

Also, everybody knows the world is watching. You know, we were in Brussels a few weeks ago with the president. Our European--my European counterparts, they are watching to see is America back. Are you really back? Can you work in a bipartisan fashion? Can this government function? And I think that Republicans and Democrats realize we must make something happen now. And so, yes, will it be hard? Yes. We have the slimmest of margins. That makes everything harder. But I think everyone’s coming to the table in good faith. And I am optimistic, as I sit here this morning, that we will get both parts done: a bipartisan infrastructure package, and in tandem, the reconciliation package.

MS. TUMULTY: So, you mentioned semiconductors. And I’d like to get into that issue because it is one that you have been deeply involved in. There is now a worldwide shortage. Basically, China does all the manufacturing of this. But you have said this was actually kind of an unforced error on the part of U.S. manufacturing. You said in search of cheap labor, we offshored so much manufacturing, and now we wake up one day vulnerable because we don’t make this stuff in America. So how do you get the United States back in the business of manufacturing this very, very vital commodity in this country without compromising what we consider to be acceptable labor standards?

SEC. RAIMONDO: Great question. And again, the president’s very clear on this. We want to be and will be an administration that is pro-business but pro-labor and not--you know, making sure that workers benefit. So first let me say it is very doable, right? Like, these are highly automated and highly sophisticated manufacturing processes. There’s no reason why we cannot have more semiconductor manufacturing facilities in America and do it profitably and competitively. And as you say, in fact, it’s necessary that we do.

So right now, weaving its way through the Congress is the CHIPS Act. It’s had different names over time. It got through the Senate a few weeks ago and is now before the House. But essentially, it’s a $52 billion investment into a semiconductor fund which will be implemented by us here at the Department of Commerce to invest in the onshoring of producing sophisticated semiconductors, you know? And we need to--we need to incentivize the creation of more manufacturing facilities in America--and by the way, create many good American jobs doing that. So, it’s actually quite doable in partnership with the private sector. We just have to get it through Congress and get to the business of doing it.

MS. TUMULTY: Another issue that you have been involved with is the concept of tech hubs--again, an ability to sort of bring a lot of parts of this country sort of into the 21st century when it comes down to technology. Could you describe this concept and what the competitive process is going to be like in various parts of the country?

SEC. RAIMONDO: Yeah. So, if you look around America, you’ll see most of the innovation or most, say, venture capital is highly concentrated into a small handful of communities. And you know what they are, here in the D.C. area, Boston, New York, Silicon Valley; Austin, Texas. That--even though that’s where all the venture capital and financing is clustered, that is not where all of the talent, research and development, entrepreneurial spirit is clustered. In fact, that is distributed across America.

So, what we need to do is create kind of regional tech hubs outside of just Silicon Valley, Boston, and New York, in places all around America which have leading universities, fantastic talent, you know, institutions of research and development, and create an ecosystem where the talent and financing and entrepreneurial incubators work together with the R&D. It--this happens organically in places like Cambridge, Massachusetts, around MIT, Silicon Valley, around Stanford. We need to give it help in other regions where it hasn’t happened organically to unleash the potential in those research institutions and quite frankly create jobs.

Now here’s the good news. COVID has shown you can work from anywhere. You can work anywhere, right? Which means we have a huge opportunity right now to allow folks who live all over the country in maybe more remote areas to live where they want to live, but also have a tech job, you know, at a company that might be headquartered someplace else, or maybe the company has an outpost somewhere.

I did a lot of this as governor. In Rhode Island, we created a tech hub, an innovation hub in Rhode Island. We were close to Boston and created a great deal of good jobs for people. So, I’m excited to, you know, work on this and stimulate some of this growth all over the country.

MS. TUMULTY: And so, the process is basically cities and regions would get together, but then they have to compete against each other for this money, right?

SEC. RAIMONDO: That’s exactly right. That is exactly right. And all of this should be bottom up. This isn’t--this is not Washington imposing upon a community what to do. But, you know, you look at a community. I’m--there’s so many, I don’t want to pick any one, but there’s so many areas around the country where you have world-class talent, great universities, you know, maybe one or two big companies. We need to--the community needs to come together. We need to take the colleges and universities, the talent coming out of them, the entrepreneurial spirit that’s there.

By the way, they tend to be clustered in what they’re good at in that community--you know, maybe it’s ocean science, maybe it’s agricultural science, maybe it’s advanced manufacturing, maybe it’s biotechnology--and come together as a community to develop a cluster of innovation and apply for this money, and then the government’s money can be used maybe to, you know, build a facility, maybe to build a lab, maybe to do--create an incubator, maybe to provide job training, you know, but to support and kind of supercharge the community’s effort so that an ecosystem can develop. You have to get the flywheel going. And once that flywheel is going, it can be very self-sustaining.

MS. TUMULTY: Well, in the little bit of time that we have left, if I can--if I can sort of take us back to where we started, it is now the middle of July. The August congressional recess is upon us. What do you think the next couple of weeks, how crucial are they? And how much do you think realistically can get done? And I think especially on the more traditional infrastructure bill where, again, this to me seems like the biggest test yet of President Biden’s entire concept that he could govern in an inclusive, bipartisan way? What’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks?

SEC. RAIMONDO: I believe--I do believe, as I sit here today, we will be successful. How crucial? Very crucial. You know, we won’t sugarcoat it. The next few weeks are crucial. It is--it is an urgent matter. We need to take action. Congress should take action. The president has been at the table, himself personally engaged, his Cabinet very engaged the entire time. It’s been a month and a half of incredible progress.

I came to Washington not knowing what to expect. I came to Washington having been a governor, having heard stories of gridlock and dysfunction. That has not been what I’ve seen. The president’s leadership, congressional leadership, we have had enormous progress. We are sitting here in the precipice of getting through a massive, you know, biggest of its kind in history bipartisan infrastructure investment. These next few weeks are critical. I think we all owe it to one another and to the American people to get this across the finish line, and I know that that’s what we’re going to be focused on in the administration.

MS. TUMULTY: Well, thank you so much, Secretary Raimondo, for first of all being with us today and for your patience with our initial little technical glitches here.

SEC. RAIMONDO: Thank you so much for having me.

MS. TUMULTY: And I hope you will join us this afternoon at 2:30 for our next Washington Post Live event, which will be my colleague Frances Stead Sellers, a special program on disability. And go to Washington Post live and look at all the other great programs that we have coming. Thank you so much for being with us today.

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