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Senator Feingold Charts Course

He's hoping to make progress on five key domestic issues in 2008

Sen. Russ Feingold has a plan. Getting ready to head back to Washington as Congress is about to resume, the Democratic senator from Wisconsin has compiled a list of his top five domestic agenda items for 2008: a health care proposal, changes to the No Child Left Behind Act, improving public financing of presidential campaigns, strengthening the Clean Water Act and giving the president line-item veto powers.

He acknowledges none of the proposals are actually going to get passed this year, but he wants to at least move the needle on them. Build some critical mass to present to the new president.

In an interview with The Post-Crescent editorial board, Feingold discussed those proposals, the war in Iraq and the current presidential campaigns.

Here's an edited transcript of his interview:

On the listening sessions he's been holding around the state

When I see people at these town meetings, they seem the most down, the most distressed than I've ever seen people overall, in 25 years of elected office. They're very frustrated with the administration and just feeling bad about government. So I've just started saying to them, "Hey, there's going to be a new president in a year." And people just smile.

On health care

It's the No. 1 domestic issue that's brought up at the town meetings. Lindsay Graham, who's a senator from South Carolina, and I have come together on a proposal. I support universal health care for all Americans. He doesn't, necessarily. But we agree that we ought to have a commission that allows three or four states to win a competition to become pilot projects to show their vision of how they can move toward universal coverage in their state.

For some, it might be a single-payer state, it might be an employer coalition, co-op type of approach. He says health savings accounts; I'm skeptical of it. But the idea is that we would actually have some evidence on the ground of what works and what doesn't.

This has all been a theoretical debate since, God knows, Harry Truman. And it goes nowhere. So we're excited about this. The Heritage Foundation has endorsed it, the Brookings Institution, the SEIU. The Heritage Foundation is very conservative. The SEIU might be the most liberal union.

They all come together, saying, "You know, we think we can show our stuff with this kind of deal."

On No Child Left Behind Act

I'm been trying for years to try to modify it in some way, try to fix it, to make it less onerous.

At every listening session, someone complains about this. It's not just teachers. It's school board members, it's administrators, everybody.

So I've introduced the Improved Student Testing Act, which I think will have bipartisan support. It reduces some of the burden of these tests. It provides alternative options for showing student achievement.

It eliminates this requirement that all the kids have to be at the same level by 2014, which reminds me of Garrison Keillor in Lake Wobegon: "All of the kids are above-average." It's not going to happen.

On presidential campaign funding

People almost forget that we had successful public funding of presidential campaign for something like 25 years.

When Carter beat Ford or Reagan beat Carter, nobody said it was because one guy had more money because they had the same money. The system was working. People opted for it.

It's become outdated, in part because some of these candidates want to spend all they can. But it's also unfair to candidates because they can't spend enough to be competitive, given the limits.

And the real kicker is the primary part. They can't get any of the money in an odd-numbered year. So none of these candidates running in the primaries could opt for public financing and get the money in '07. They had to come into '08 and they're already in these huge primaries.

This bill, with Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, and Republican and Democratic co-sponsors in the House, would try to get us back to showing that could work.

And, frankly, I would like to see public financing of congressional races. But this would be a good place to start because it has worked in the past.

On the Clean Water Act

Richard Nixon signed the 1972 Clean Water Act. It was understood for decades that that included not just purely navigable waters in the classical sense but prairie potholes, streams and other critical waters.

A couple of recent Supreme Court decisions, very close decisions, have really severely limited this in a way that many people think is a real danger to the protection of the environment, a step backward.

Wisconsin immediately reacted to this under Gov. McCallum and said, "We're not doing this," and on a bipartisan basis overturned it.

But I like to kid around and say we have very smart birds but they don't know when they're flying from Wisconsin to Minnesota or Illinois. We really need a national policy on it.

We're going to be in a real fight on this one but it is bipartisan. The Clean Water Restoration Act is to take us back to that authority. Others will say that it tries to create new, broader authority than before. But we were very emphatic and careful that that's what this really is.

The opposition, I think, is trying to push back the clock to before 1972. So this is an important battle.

On the presidential line-item veto

I've always been a Democrat who supports the idea of a reasonable line-item veto for the president.

I don't want the Wisconsin "Vanna White," "Frankenstein," whatever the latest name is for it. I think that's nuts.

But I do want the president to say, "Here's a bill and these 15 things were shoved in at the last minute and I'd like you guys to vote on it as a separate package."

Now I did support John McCain's efforts on this in the past. It passed but it went to the Supreme Court and they struck it down. It went too far, so we've got to do something that isn't as extreme as that.

Paul Ryan, who's a Republican from Janesville, as I am, we've created something we call the Janesville Line-Item Veto. It's a more modified thing but it gives the president a chance to take a bill in a period of time and say, "Here's 10 things. I want you to vote on these as a package." Congress would be required to vote on it.

We believe the Court will say that's fine. I think this kind of line-item veto, which is narrow, can help us on this earmark thing.

What people in listening sessions are saying about the war in Iraq

Primarily, get us out. They know we can't just leave in two minutes. They fundamentally don't see it as the greatest challenge we have in our foreign policy, which I think they're absolutely right about. They see it as having been a mistake in the first place.

What they're particularly concerned about is the draining of our resources - the money, the weakening of the military, a lot of venom about the private companies, Blackwater. That just comes up all the time.

They kind of see it as a sinkhole situation, where it just seems like our national wealth and strength is being sapped. That's their intuition and I think they're right.

You start talking about Pakistan, you go, well, this guy and his buddies who are planning to kill us, they're in Pakistan, or possibly in Pakistan. But we know where they are and they're not in Iraq.

That's not to say Iraq hasn't become a problem. But when people start thinking about the resources and what we're actually doing and the situation that's obviously developing in Afghanistan, which is very, very dicey, they see this as an odd choice.

And the attempt to say, "Hey, things are getting better," Hillary Clinton said it well in one debate. She said, "We lost 23 people in Iraq in December. What's the celebrating about?"

How long are we going to go forward with this on the notion that we can keep a lid on this country? If anyone really believes you can achieve political reconciliation when there's an occupying power from a non-Islamic country, I disagree. It's not going to happen. It's not going to happen as long as we're militarily there with a heavy foot.

On the Democratic presidential candidates

I did notice that as the primaries heated up, all of a sudden, all the presidential candidates - none of whom voted with me on the timeframe to withdraw from Iraq - all voted with me when we did the Patriot Act stuff.

The one that is the most problematic is (John) Edwards, who voted for the Patriot Act, campaigns against it. Voted for No Child Left Behind, campaigns against it. Voted for the China trade deal, campaigns against it. Voted for the Iraq war ... He uses my voting record exactly as his platform, even though he had the opposite voting record.

When you had the opportunity to vote a certain way in the Senate and you didn't, and obviously there are times when you make a mistake, the notion that you sort of vote one way when you're playing the game in Washington and another way when you're running for president, there's some of that going on.

On whether he'll make an endorsement in the Feb. 19 Wisconsin primary

Probably not. I'm having a hard time deciding between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, as are many people. Those are the two I take the most seriously.

I go back and forth, to be honest with you. I'm torn on this whole issue of who's more likely to be progressive and really seek change vs. who's ready to do the job today. It really is a true dilemma in my mind.

© 2008 Appleton Post-Crescent

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