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Transcript: Across the Aisle: Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.)

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MS. CALDWELL: Welcome to the first in the series “Across the Aisle.” I am Leigh Ann Caldwell. In these conversations, I’m going to be talking to key players in Washington and people around the country about the issues that are shaping our national dialogue, but we’re going to do it in a way that talks to both sides of the debate. We’re going to get multiple perspectives, and we’re going to highlight bipartisan solutions.

And we're going to do that today by talking to two Senators who are leading on the issue of NATO and Ukraine. These Senators are leading a congressional delegation to the NATO Summit in Madrid next week, and of course, NATO is high in the news because two countries, Finland and Sweden, are trying to join the alliance.

So let's get started by bringing in those Senators, Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican of North Carolina, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat of New Hampshire. Thank you both so much for joining us.

SEN. SHAHEEN: Nice to be with you.

SEN. TILLIS: Thank you.

MS. CALDWELL: Since we are highlighting bipartisan solutions, I am absolutely going to spend the most of this time talking about NATO and Ukraine, but first, you each are also involved in bipartisan solutions on two different but big‑time topics in the news.

So, first, on the issue of guns. Senator Tillis, you were a lead negotiator coming to agreement on this issue of gun safety and mental health, got 15 Republican votes in the Senate last night, although it's not final passage. Tell me how did you walk into these conversations, and is it difficult to push back against so many in the Republican base and the gun industry who does not want this to happen?

SEN. TILLIS: You know, I don't think so. First off, I think that the four of us that worked to craft the legislation that was voted on, the initial vote last night, was a strong vote, and a part of that was because we kept a number of members informed.

We think that what we're doing here‑‑and I would say that mental health is the foundation of this bill. It's nearly a fourth of the plain text of the legislation that we put down; school safety, avoiding what we saw in Uvalde occur again through hardening schools and better training and better operating procedures for law enforcement. I think dealing with gun trafficking is something that's very important, and we do that with the straw purchase provision, and then trying to make sure that moving forward, if states move towards crisis intervention orders or red‑flag laws, that they do it with the full‑‑with full compliance of the Constitution.

So, when I look at and read again, we encourage anybody who has a concern with what's being discussed in the media. They should read the 80 pages. It took me about 45 minutes this morning to go through it word for word, and if they look at the plain text of the legislation, I think that it's balanced, and it was a result of good‑faith negotiations by my colleagues on the other side of the aisle.

MS. CALDWELL: And some, though, Senator Tillis‑‑one quick follow‑up‑‑say that this does infringe on Second Amendment rights. Does it hurt your argument?

SEN. TILLIS: Well, we need to make it very clear. There are some states that raised the age to 21. In my opinion, that's a three‑year mandatory waiting period for an 18‑year‑old. We didn't do that. We have no mandatory waiting periods. We took‑‑we implemented no legislation that restricts gun purchases, the guns that are currently available, and we're trying to work really hard to make sure that states come into compliance with the Constitution.

I don't think anyone debates the need for the investment and school safety and security, and that's why I think it's a balanced bill. And I think it will age well.

MS. CALDWELL: And, Senator Shaheen, you are part of a different bipartisan achievement. You announced, with Senator Susan Collins this morning, agreement on an insulin bill. How critical is that legislation, not only to the country but also heading into the midterms for Democrats?

SEN. SHAHEEN: Well, I think it's really important because it's going to save lives. Senator Collins and I have cochaired the Diabetes Caucus since I got to the Senate. She was doing it before then, and we really started in 2019 with the foundation of the bill that we just introduced. And this is a bill that doesn't just cap out of out‑of‑pocket costs, but it addresses the underlying price of insulin.

We know that one in four people who have diabetes are rationing their insulin. It's costing lives. We also know that diabetes is the most expensive chronic disease that we have. So this is a way to not just help those individuals who are affected by diabetes. Type 1, you are dependent on insulin. If you have Type 2, about 20 percent of Type 2 diabetics also require insulin in order to stay alive. That's not something that you can fool around with.

So this is a bill that's going to save lives. I believe we can get it across the finish line. We're working‑‑we're going to work hard on that, and we have a strong working relationship on this issue for many years, and hopefully, we can get our colleagues on both sides of the aisle in both houses to support it.

MS. CALDWELL: Great. And now back to the issue that we both brought you on for. Another bipartisan issue is on this issue of NATO. You are headed to the NATO Summit in Madrid next week. There's a lot of tensions revolving NATO because, of course, Russia.

The key priority is Finland and Sweden who wants to join NATO, but Turkey is blocking. How important is it by the end of this NATO Summit to have Turkey on board with this? Senator Shaheen?

SEN. SHAHEEN: Well, President Erdoğan has in the past been supportive of Finland and Sweden joining NATO. So it's not‑‑it's not exactly clear to me what his objections are. We're hoping to meet with him. Our delegation that's going is hoping to meet with him when we're in Madrid.

But we know that Sweden and Finland, their leaders have been trying to work with Turkey to address the concerns that President Erdoğan has raised. I think they will be successful, an whether this is done at the Madrid Summit or whether continuing negotiations have to happen in order to get it done, it's going to get done, I believe, because Finland and Sweden bring significant help to NATO. They not only help address the 2 percent of defense spending that NATO members are asked to produce, so the burden sharing is there, but I can remember talking to one of our military leaders about what Finland and Sweden would bring to NATO. And he said, "Well, now we'll have a navy in the Baltic Sea." So it's very clear that they have a significant contribution, and it's going to be in all of the NATO countries' interests to have them join.

MS. CALDWELL: Senator Tillis, how important is it or do you think that Ukraine should really, you know, drop any sort of pretense that they still want to join NATO to help create an end to this war?

SEN. TILLIS: Well, you know, honestly, Leigh Ann, I think that the pretense was what Putin used to invade Ukraine. Ukraine has a number of structural requirements that they would have to uphold before they would ever have been considered as an entrant to NATO. As a matter of fact, I think their focus right now is on integration with the EU, and I think that's a good first step because that assures us that a lot of the reforms, the things that are required to be a member of NATO are being addressed over time.

So I don't‑‑you know, I think that playing with Putin's table stakes is not the right way to do it. He used that as a false premise for invading a sovereign nation, one that he had recognized that sovereignty not long ago, and I think that that should be separate from the resolution that ultimately occurs in Ukraine. And I'll leave that up to President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people.

MS. CALDWELL: Mm‑hmm. And, Senator Shaheen, there's been some increased tensions with Russia and NATO just in the past few days, including Russia has threatened repercussions for Lithuania blocking some goods getting to--Kaliningrad is Russian territory--that they have to go through Lithuania to get some of those goods to. Do you fear that there is an escalation happening as we speak?

SEN. SHAHEEN: Well, I think Putin's rhetoric is escalating, and I think he would like us to think that there's an escalation, but I'm with Senator Tillis. We should not be fighting this war on Russia's terms, and the fact is I don't believe Russia is going to put one foot into a NATO country because they've already lost, by good estimates, about 20 percent of their military who have been lost in the Ukraine war. The idea that they're going to be able to fight the NATO alliance and all of the NATO countries, I think, is‑‑I think Putin is smart enough to know better than to try and do that because‑‑

MS. CALDWELL: So it's a deterrent. It is an actual deterrent.

SEN. SHAHEEN: Absolutely. There's a very good reason why Ukraine wants to join NATO, why Georgia wants to join NATO, why Finland and Sweden are now joining NATO. Finland shares a border with Russia that's over 800 miles. They know that if they have allies in NATO, that they have more protection, and who knows what Vladimir Putin is going to do? I mean, it's crazy to think that he would invade Ukraine, a neighboring country where there are a lot of Ukrainians who have ties to Russia and vice versa, and yet his position was Ukraine doesn't have a right to exist as a country. Well, that is a real concern to the Baltic nations, to other Eastern European countries, and they want to know that they're going to have the Article 5 protection from NATO.

MS. CALDWELL: Well, Senator Tillis, Estonia is saying that Russia flew into Estonian airspace for about two minutes. So is that an escalation, and should that invoke any sort of Article 5? What‑‑I don't want to use this word "redline," but how should NATO respond to that, if at all?

SEN. TILLIS: No. Putin is constantly testing. We've had reports from Sweden about air incursions. He's trying to flex his muscle, but he tried to do that on February the 24th, thinking that he was going to be having accomplished his mission within two weeks. He failed.

He thought that NATO would not have a unified response after he invaded Ukraine. He failed.

The one time that Article 5 has been used in the history of the alliance was when our allies came to work with us after the events of 9/11.

So he needs to understand this alliance is strong. He also needs to understand that the EU recognizes they're a strategic threat, and they're also making investments.

So he made a gross miscalculation. He's going to continue to push the limits. Flying into sovereign airspace is an issue, but he does it just enough to where he can get away with it. If he escalates beyond these, which are unacceptable, then I think he understands the consequences, and that's why I don't believe--he would like to target the Baltic states. They're right on the border. I was in Estonia just a couple of years ago. But we are all working together, and we're executing well, and I think that Putin understands that.

MS. CALDWELL: Senator Shaheen, at the end of this NATO conference that begins next week, should there be‑‑how strong does the alliance need to be? What should‑‑what is the goal coming out of the meeting? Should there be some sort of proclamation? Is acceptance of Finland and Sweden immediately, is that an immediate goal? What needs to happen out of this meeting?

SEN. SHAHEEN: Well, as Thom has said, Putin vastly miscalculated. In fact, I think it's probably the worst mistake of a leader certainly in Europe since Hitler went into Russia in World War II. What he did was unite NATO in a way that hasn't been done in a number of years, and I think at the Madrid Summit, what we will see is a NATO where people are very much on the same message, where they are talking about the importance of the NATO alliance and providing security for member nations, where they're looking at the expansion of adding Finland and Sweden, something people didn't think would happen at all. They're looking at what the future of NATO is. They have a document that they're going to be finalizing at this summit that looks not just as aggression from Russia and other nations but also talks about China and the potential impact of China on NATO nations.

So I think this is going to be a very important summit where the NATO countries make clear to the rest of the world that they not only support each other but support a rules‑based international order.

MS. CALDWELL: You made‑‑

SEN. TILLIS: Leigh Ann, the only‑‑

MS. CALDWELL: Yeah.

SEN. TILLIS: The one thing I'd like to add to that is that going into the summit, what we had hoped would have occurred before the summit was that both Finland and Sweden would be in invitee status. I'm not sure that that will get accomplished at this summit, but I'm very optimistic that it will happen and will address Turkey's concerns.

One thing‑‑and I think that Senator Shaheen agrees with this‑‑we want to be one of the first nations to vote on the treaty in the U.S. Senate, and that will be one vehicle with both countries on it, doing our part to support their accession. So I believe it's going to happen. It's unfortunate that it couldn't happen before the summit.

But I also just want to reiterate something that Senator Shaheen said. This is an extraordinary summit, let alone that we have two nonaligned nations wanting to join and adding 830 miles of a border with Russia, but we have Pacific Rim countries coming, because where there's an increasing acknowledgement to NATO that China is a threat, and to have them at the summit is historic. And I'm looking forward to being a part of it.

MS. CALDWELL: Mm‑hmm. And, Senator Tillis, to follow up a little bit, is there anything that the United States needs to do more in order to smooth the transition and the entry or Sweden and Finland? Has the administration done enough?

SEN. TILLIS: I think so far, they've done well. We've coordinated with them. We've tried to work on the expedited timeline. Once we get the‑‑both countries into invitee status‑‑and I think we're working with the administration. We all share the same goal to get that done very, very quickly.

So I think to this point, the administration is also, I'm sure, in discussions with Turkey to try and resolve the issue so that we can get that process going.

MS. CALDWELL: Mm‑hmm. And one more for you, Senator Tillis, you know, you guys created‑‑re‑created, restarted the NATO working group in the Senate in 2018. That was also a time in the country where there was a lot of resistance to NATO to being part of these international organizations. Did that play a part in the creation and restarting this initiative to ensure that the alliances are strong and that the country doesn't move too far away from that position?

SEN. TILLIS: No. I think it was very important. Senator Shaheen and I attended a summit a couple of years ago, and we were there to make it very clear to the NATO members that Congress believes that it's the most important alliance that's ever existed, and we're committed to it.

That doesn't mean that we want to step away from the need for everybody to get up to the 2 percent and have full burden sharing. We need to continue to have those discussions, but this was an extraordinary time since Russia invaded Ukraine to really see the strength of the alliance. And I think it's one that we need to make‑‑send a very clear signal that we're a very important part of NATO, as are all of the other member countries, and we want to build on it.

I also want to credit Senator Shaheen for approaching me about reinstituting the Senate NATO Observer Group. It was a great idea, and I think it couldn't have been more timely.

MS. CALDWELL: Senator Shaheen‑‑

SEN. SHAHEEN: Thank you, Thom.

MS. CALDWELL: Oh, go ahead.

SEN. SHAHEEN: Well, I just wanted to follow up. One of the things that we did was to recreate that Senate NATO Observer Group that had been established back in the early '90s when NATO was looking at enlargement, and it was a way to try and make sure that members of the Senate knew what was happening at NATO and could be supportive because each NATO country has to approve an expansion of NATO.

And I think over the last several years, as Montenegro and North Macedonia have joined NATO, we saw firsthand how important the Senate NATO Observer Group is and how helpful we could be in addressing the continued effort to include countries that want to join NATO that have something to add to the security alliance.

MS. CALDWELL: Senator Shaheen, I want to switch gears just a little bit directly on to Ukraine. The Senate passed, as you both well know‑‑Congress passed $40 billion in aid to Ukraine recently. How long do you expect that aid to last, and is it enough?

SEN. SHAHEEN: Well, I think it's not going to be enough until Ukraine defeats Russia or pushes them out, and I think it's important for us to support Ukraine's efforts in every way that we can. They are amazingly courageous, and they are fighting not just for their own freedom, but I believe they're fighting for democracies around the world. And that's why we've seen not just our allies and the Transatlantic Alliance come together and NATO come together but countries, democracies around the world come together in support of Ukraine.

So we have just‑‑the president just released some additional money from that package that includes not just military aid but also humanitarian aid, and I think we've got to continue to work with Ukraine and support them in every way we can, and that one of the important things about this effort is how strongly bipartisan it is.

MS. CALDWELL: Senator Tillis, is the money going out from that $40 billion‑‑is it being, you know, spent quickly enough?

SEN. TILLIS: I think the administration is using good judgment now in coordination with President Zelensky.

You know, one of the things we have to do looking ahead, if this becomes protracted‑‑and I, for one, think that it may‑‑is what more can we do to get some rebound with the Ukrainian economy, to get some of their agriculture products out of the country, providing more capacity for future harvest, and so how much more we may have to provide Ukraine in terms of monetary aid or military aid also relates to those other factors. If we can get to some functioning economic growth within Ukraine, that will obviously have an impact.

I should also say that our NATO partners are there with us and the EU is there with us. We need to send a very clear message to Vladimir Putin, we're here for the long term, that our collective economies dwarf the Russian economy, and he's got to be looking at the longer‑term negative consequences. So all that‑‑I think all that plays into it.

SEN. SHAHEEN: And listen, I think‑‑

MS. CALDWELL: But, Senator Tillis‑‑go ahead.

SEN. SHAHEEN: If I could just follow up on that, I think we need to work with the UN, and we need to say to Putin and to Russia, we are not going to let you starve millions of people around the world because you're not willing to release the grain that Ukraine is holding that is going to go to some much of‑‑to feed so much of the world. I think we should say we are going to take that grain out, and, Vladimir Putin, you need to stand down while we do that, because what he's doing right now is telling Africa and Latin America that it's the United States that's responsible for the food insecurity that too many people are experiencing. And, in fact, it's Putin and Russia, and we need to be clear about that with the rest of the world, and we need to work with the UN to ensure that people get fed.

MS. CALDWELL: This question is for both of you. Senator Shaheen, you can start, and then we'll go to Senator Tillis. You know, you both kind of said that this war is going to be protracted. When is there a victory? How does a victory happen, and how do you‑‑how long will that take?

SEN. SHAHEEN: Well, I think that's for the Ukrainians to decide. They may decide they want to try and negotiate a settlement and that Russia may at some point be willing to come to the table and Ukraine may be willing to come to the table. I mean, at this point, given the atrocities that Russia has inflicted on Ukraine, I can understand why the Ukrainian people are not ready to negotiate a peace agreement, but I think that's got to be up to the Ukrainians.

MS. CALDWELL: Senator Tillis?

SEN. TILLIS: I completely agree with Senator Shaheen. We cannot imagine what the Ukrainian people are experiencing today, and they need to determine what an acceptable outcome is, and we need to respect that decision and, again, send the signal to Putin that he invaded Ukraine. He is responsible for the murder of thousands of people in Ukraine since February the 24th. The Ukrainian people need to determine what they ultimately do to resolve the problem, and Vladimir Putin needs to understand we're standing behind them until they reach that point.

MS. CALDWELL: Great. Senator Shaheen, Senator Tillis, we are out of time, but I want to thank you so much for joining us today on our inaugural series. Thank you for your time.

SEN. SHAHEEN: Thank you. It's a great series.

SEN. TILLIS: Thank you.

MS. CALDWELL: Great. And for all of you watching, thank you so much for joining. For more information about this program, “Across the Aisle,” and all of our Washington Post Live programs, go to our website, WashingtonPostLive.com, and until next time.

[End recorded session]

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