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Transcript: 117th Congress: House Majority Whip Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.)

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MS. SOTOMAYOR: Hi, everyone, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Marianna Sotomayor, congressional reporter at The Washington Post covering the House of Representatives. That’s why I am very excited to have this timely conversation with Congressman Jim Clyburn. He is of course the third highest ranking Democrat in the House, serving as the majority whip. Congressman, thank you so much for joining me today.

REP. CLYBURN: Well, thank you very much for having me.

MS. SOTOMAYOR: There’s so many things, so many things I want to ask you about. But of course, I need to start where the news has been in the last 24 hours, which is of course the Supreme Court. I know there are now several names that are being floated, and you have been someone who has counseled Biden from basically the beginning of his campaign to this day, even though there--a lot of your colleagues are actually thinking that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson seems to be the frontrunner, there’s been one consistent name for you, one consistent recommendation, and that of course is Judge J. Michelle Childs. Can you tell us a little bit about her, why you like her so much, and whether you’ve spoken to Biden or Childs in the last 24 hours given the Breyer retirement news?

REP. CLYBURN: Well, thank you very much for having me. And let me start with the latter part of your question. No, I have not talked to President Biden or with Michelle Childs in the last 24 or 48 hours, or even the last several days. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I talked with Michelle. I did talk with the president a couple of weeks ago. And of course, I had been talking with President Biden for some time now about the United States Supreme Court. As you know, I’m the father of three daughters. They are very professional women. They are achievers. None of them are lawyers or interested in the Supreme Court from a personal standpoint. But they are women. They're Black women. And they have been insulted over the year, like so many other Black women, that we now have five women who have served on the United States Supreme Court, not a single time has a Black woman ever been seriously considered.

And so I took that issue up with then candidate Biden back in 2020, that I thought that the time had arrived for us to do something about that. How many times have you heard it said that Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party? Well, you just can't say it. You’ve got to show it. I happen to have been born and raised in [unclear], and I believe it's their deeds that matter, not their words. And so President Biden made it a commitment at the Charleston debate back in February two years ago, and said that if he got the opportunity, he would appoint or nominate a African American woman to serve on the court. And he has reiterated in recent days that he plans to keep that commitment.

Now, as it relates to who, I don't have anything against the seven or eight names that I have seen floated as possibilities. They’re all great people. The fact of the matter is, I have been discussing Michelle Childs with the president and his people now for, I guess, at least 13 months. Now she has been nominated to the D.C. circuit that everybody says is the second most powerful and most important court in the country. Michelle Childs is a from a blue-collar family. She's a graduate of a Florida public university. She's a graduate of the South Carolina public law school. She has been deputy director of a state agency, and she has been a worker's comp judge, knowing the corporate side of the world, as well as the labor. She was deputy director of the Labor Department here in South Carolina. She knows the labor issues. She knows the management issues. And that's why everywhere I go people tell me what an outstanding federal judge she has been at the district level. So, she has what I call the kind of background and experiences that we ought to have, that judges and jurists ought to have.

And I am very, very concerned that we take on this elitist kind of atmosphere when we pretend that the only way you can demonstrate the necessary qualifications is to go to certain schools. Well, I don't think that's right. Thurgood Marshall was an outstanding jurist, an HBCU graduate--in fact, two times. And so I just think that it is time for us to diversify the court, not just as relates to gender, but as it relates to color as well, and as it relates to backgrounds and experiences.

And it wouldn’t help to have somebody from the South. Though Clarence Thomas was born in the South, he's never identified with the South. Here is a woman born in the South, raised in the South, still does her service in the South. She would bring a unique perspective to the Supreme Court if for no other reason than to let people know there are a lot of Southerners who are African American, who are real southerners.

MS. SOTOMAYOR: You know, Biden has definitely heard, as you know, your call for a Black woman to be on the Supreme Court. But one of the things that he actually said shortly after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died was that if he were to be elected president, and he had to go through a nominations process, he would want the input of Democrat and Republican senators who are going to obviously oversee this confirmation process, because he doesn't want it to become a partisan event like we've seen it in the last couple years. Do you think that Childs does have potentially appeal among Republican senators? And are you thinking of doing what you do best, picking up the phone, whipping some votes, talking to Senate Republicans to see if your pick is going to actually get some support?

REP. CLYBURN: Absolutely. We have two Republican senators from South Carolina. Both of them know Michelle Childs very well, and both of them have spoken highly of her. And the Republicans all over this state think that she’s an outstanding jurist. Remember, I may have left this out. She was a state circuit judge before she became a federal district judge. So, if you look at the experience, there's nobody sitting on the Supreme Court today that can tout the background, the experience of life and profession that Michelle Childs would bring to the court. It's just that simple. And I think that Republicans appreciate that as much as Democrats.

And I've heard from Republicans since yesterday. They're very high on her and not just here in South Carolina. I've heard from as far away as Illinois in the last 24 hours, and people say they like her, they have watched her. She's president of the Federal Judges Association. I don't think they would have elevated her to that point were she not really, really qualified for that.

MS. SOTOMAYOR: You mentioned experience, and that, of course, is going to be something that Biden will be weighing here. But I actually wanted to bring up last year you told the Post and Courier, when these questions kind of were starting to bubble up, that you would like to see Childs serve first on the D.C. Circuit Court, just because it is traditionally seen as a stepping stone to the Supreme Court. We know Jackson is already sitting on that court. So do you think that she actually may naturally have a little bit more experience right now on that front?

REP. CLYBURN: Well, she may have more experience. But more experience doesn’t mean the best experience? And so, you know, a lot of people have a lot of experience. And I don't have anything against Judge Jackson. She's an outstanding person from all I hear. I don't think I've ever met her, but I don't have anything against her. I just have a whole lot for Michelle Child. And of course, when you have tradition, as someone said to me, well, you don't have to be on the D.C. Circuit to get considered for the Supreme Court. I know that. The most recent appointment to the Supreme Court by the Republicans did not serve on the D.C. Circuit. She served--I forgot what number of the circuit she comes from. She’s a graduate of Notre Dame rather than a so-called--what do we call them--the schools that people traditionally look to, Ivy League schools. These are the kinds of people that the vast majority of the American people can associate with and have similar experiences to. So, I just think that to say you’ve got to be on the D.C. Circuit--did Ruth Bader Ginsburg come from the D.C. Circuit? I don't think so.

MS. SOTOMAYOR: And I just wanted to ask, you know, do you think that Child's most recent nomination to the D.C. Circuit Court--I believe her hearing may be underway as soon as next week over in the Senate--do you think that could be a consolidation in some ways, because she may not be picked to serve on the Supreme Court?

REP. CLYBURN: Well, I'll let the White House do what they would like to do with this. I'm just making my feelings known. I suspect that there are people in the White House who would feel differently. There may be people around the country that feel differently. I'm letting my feelings be known, and the White House can do what they feel they need to do and I'll just react accordingly.

MS. SOTOMAYOR: Well, now, I want to move on to voting rights. That, of course, is probably the second issue most important to you, if not the first one. As you continue to look at these next months ahead, I remember last year, you actually warned Democrats that if the filibuster wasn't removed, especially on voting rights, you all could lose a lot of reliable Black voters who have turned out over the last several elections, especially who came out for Biden because they thought that he and a Democratic Congress could deliver. I know that latest polls have shown that within the Black community, Biden's approval rating has dropped from 90 percent to 60 currently. I'm curious to hear from you on that loss of momentum, why that is, and what you all can do to make sure that these voters turn out in the midterms.

REP. CLYBURN: Well, these numbers bear out what I was saying last year. The fact of the matter is, people have certain expectations. You may recall when Joe Biden's campaign was in need of energy. He had lost three primaries coming into South Carolina. And I thought that certain things needed to happen in order to get the campaign back on track and on a successful journey, which it did get back on track and was successful. And it all comes from talking to people. I talked to people, and I listened to people, and I tried to give my party the benefit of these discussions. And so I knew that we would suffer significantly if we fail to do something about the filibuster. Now we have failed to do anything about the filibuster.

Now, what is the fallback position? Now I know everybody says there's bipartisan support for the so-called Electoral Count Commission. Well, that's presidential stuff. No president goes to school board meetings or goes to a legislative hall. And we've got the laws being passed all over the South, especially being proposed in 49 states that could very well nullify a vote. Then no matter how much you turn out, if you don't like the outcome, we can nullify. We've got to have protection against these kinds of law.

And so if you're going to have an electoral count, just broaden the electoral count beyond presidential and have the electoral count for all elect. It's right there in the Constitution. What is it, the first amend-- Article Four? I know it’s the so-called Federalist Papers 59. It’s very clear that the Congress has got the responsibility to act on this. No state has the authority to overturn a federal election, and that's what these people are attempting to do under the guise of states running elections. Read the Federalist Papers 59 to see what Alexander Hamilton had to say about that. That's just not true.

MS. SOTOMAYOR: The pathway for Congress to do anything on this, though, as we've already seen, is very tricky. And I'm curious what specifically--specific policies, or you know, pathways forward that you all are thinking you can actually get done in a split Senate that we're seeing right now? Is it also starting to think of things like could we put more money to safeguard elections in appropriation bills later this year? Or are you counseling Biden to take executive actions unilaterally on this front if Congress really can't act?

REP. CLYBURN: Well, I think all of the above. Yeah, we need to beef up our elect--funding for our elections. We need to have Election Day as a national holiday. Why is it that we have elections on Tuesdays? In most countries like ours, the elections are on weekends, Saturdays and Sundays. But no, our election is on Tuesday. We know why elections have been put on Tuesday. Working people have to go to work, and then we don't have a national holiday for Election Day. Why? It's because it was built for the elite. We know that. That's what this system is all about. And we need to update our electoral system, all across the board. Have a national holiday for elections so that everybody can go and vote. Have preclearance. And people have got a history of changing these laws as they're doing down in Georgia, and Texas, and Florida, as well as some other states up in the Northeast to make it harder to vote. Have preclearance to make sure that the Justice Department or a court take a look at it and determine we will not discriminate. Why is it that Ohio just threw out congressional redistricting in that state, and Alabama just threw out justice redistricting there? And two of that three judge panel were appointed by Trump. And they said, this is unfair to Black people. So come on, we know it's unfair. The courts are telling us it is unfair. The one with the legislature, respond.

MS. SOTOMAYOR: You mentioned a number of different reforms you would like to see. I'm curious, have you asked Biden to pass these through executive action? I don't see the pathway right now for being able to even address all of that through Congress. Is he open to possibly doing things unilaterally on that front?

REP. CLYBURN: Well, quite frankly, that's the discussion that I have not had with President Joe Biden. I understand that there are people who have had that discussion with him. And I'm not opposed to that. As you know, the executive order, as you may know, I've been a big proponent of executive orders. I asked the Obama administration to use it more than they used it, because I happen to know that the Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order, and it freed the slaves. I happen to know that the armed services in 1948 was integrated with an executive order from Harry Truman.

So, I believe in executive orders. I sit where I sit today because of executive orders. I do know that the Constitution was amended later with the 13th Amendment, which came several years after the Emancipation Proclamation, but the slaves had already been freed. So, the executive order can do a lot. If that's what the president wants to use, I don't oppose that. In fact, I would propose it. I just not--have not had that discussion with him.

MS. SOTOMAYOR: I wanted to get your point of view on something that some Congressional Black Caucus members have been looking at as maybe something that the House could at least pass this year. Of course, that is HR 40, that reparations bill that would essentially create a committee to study reparations. Do you want to see that come to the floor? Is that possibly something that could help, you know, let your voters and constituents know that you are listening to their concerns when it comes to all of--all of these things that you all have not been able to do and deliver for Black voters, whether it’s voting rights, it’s policing? Could this be another way to justice on that front?

REP. CLYBURN: Look, contrary to all the foolishness that’s run out on social media, I am a co-sponsor of HR 40. I have been co-sponsoring that bill ever since a former member that posed it even before Sheila Jackson Lee proposed the legislation. I have had long discussions with her about HR 40. I've given my suggestions as to what we could do with HR 40, in order to get it to be more palatable to the 218 votes that we need to pass it. So, I'm not opposed to HR 40.

I ask people, though, to remember that the root word for reparations is repair. Repair. We're trying to repair something. Alexis de Tocqueville told us in his Federalist Papers, back in the 1830s, that America's greatness is not that we are more enlightened than any other nation, but rather, because we've always been able to repair our fault. So, I'm all for doing this study and finding out what we can do to repair our fault. So, I support that.

Now out on the internet, you see other kinds of foolishness that people are saying that I do not support this and I don’t support that. I wish they’d spent a little time and take a look at what the legislation is. And really, talk to Sheila Jackson Lee and ask her about the conversation that I've had with her. My job as the vote counter is to understand where the votes are and what we need to do to make legislation palatable so that we can get the 218 votes that are needed to pass the bill. And that's what I've been doing on this.

MS. SOTOMAYOR: I wanted to squeeze in a question to get your take on the pathway ahead given that the midterms are just several months away. You know, Biden's approval ratings, of course, are low. And there are a number of vulnerable Democrats within the caucus who are saying that maybe Democrats should just really start focusing and messaging on things that you all have been able to deliver on, could possibly deliver on like this America COMPETES Act, instead of the things that you haven't been able to. I'm curious to know what is right now the pathway to the--to keep the majority given that even just a couple hours ago, the DCCC added more members to that frontline list, to that vulnerable list?

REP. CLYBURN: The reason we're adding more members to that vulnerable list is because we have got redistricting taking place that's unfair. Georgia, for instance, has redistricted to be unfair. They’ve put Carolyn Bourdeaux and Lucy McBath in the same district. Why? Because they’re being unfair. And that's why lawsuits need to be filed down there. Not to say that we’ve got a Supreme Court that will be fair. I don't think they’re going to be fair on women's rights. I don't think they’re going to be fair on civil rights. So, we are in a position of needing to do some things. Hopefully the people will understand that we are dealing with a problem with our courts in many instances.

So, I applaud the court down there in Alabama for the position they just took as it relates to redistricting. But look, we should not focus on the glass as being half empty. We need to focus on the glass being half full. We've passed the Rescue Act. That might have gotten us 25 percent of the way, a quarter of the glass. We've passed the infrastructure bill. That got us to half full. We have not yet passed Build Back Better, which will give us three quarters of the way, nor have we done voting rights, which will give us a full glass. But let's concentrate on the half of the glass being half full, and we still got time to try to get the glass filled up the rest of the way.

So, you know, we can talk about what we haven't done. I saw polls out this moment that says that Joe Biden's programs are getting up to 60 percent approval, infrastructure bill approval, Build Back Better approved by the electorate. But his numbers are low simply because we have allowed the discussion to take place over what we have not done, rather than over what we have done. I was surprised to find out yesterday that there were people who did not know that Joe Biden in his first year has approved--has nominated more people of color to the federal bench than anybody. We've now--he’s now appointed eight African American women to the district courts. That’s the total of all presidents before him. And I say that to people, they say, I didn't know that. Well, that's because nobody is paying attention to anything but the stuff that we have not done, rather than something we have done. He's nominated 42 people to the federal courts, the biggest number of any president ever. But nobody's writing about that. So, I think that a lot of it has to do with the fact that we are not spending enough time talking about what we have done. And quite frankly, the media would rather deal with the negatives than the positive. That's how it’s been [unclear].

MS. SOTOMAYOR: Congressman, yeah, I wanted to ask you very quickly, because I know we're running out of time, but the future of Build Back Better, I know Manchin had proposed things that didn't include housing, child tax credit, things that would really address the racial disparities that many members of Congress want to see. What is salvageable here?

REP. CLYBURN: Well, in Build Back Better, Manchin made it very clear that he had a problem with the child tax credit, not with the child tax credit per se, but he wanted to see it means tested. I'm not opposed to that. Who would oppose that? So, I would like to see him come forward with a bill for the child tax credit that's means tested. I think it would pass. He’d get it through the Senate. I think we can get it through the House. He says he's all for us eliminating the coverage gap. You've got 12 states that have not increased, expanded Medicaid. And we've got thousands, literally thousands, if not millions of people who will need healthcare coverage who don't have it, and we said we want people to go back to work. If you want them to go back to work, give them healthcare coverage. Let them be able to take care of their children. So, we don't want to pass the legislation that will allow them to take care of their children, allow them to have healthcare coverage, but we want them back on the job on these jobs that they don't have any healthcare coverage on. So, I think--he says he's for that. So, there's a lot in Build Back Better that he says he's for. So, let's do that. I think the president says let's pass this chunk, and that chunk, and maybe we'll get some parts done.

MS. SOTOMAYOR: Congressman, thank you so much for talking to me on a whole array of issues. I know I could keep going, but I'll save my questions for next week when you're back on Capitol Hill. Thanks again for joining us today.

REP. CLYBURN: Well, thank you very much for having me.

MS. SOTOMAYOR: And I want to thank everyone who tuned into this conversation. Thank you so much for joining us. If you want to hear this conversation again, if you want to hear some of the conversations we’ve had in the past or upcoming ones, please go to I’m Marianna Sotomayor and thanks again for joining us.

[End recorded session]