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A conversation with Rep. Liz Cheney on health care, Helsinki and coal
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A conversation with Rep. Liz Cheney on health care, Helsinki and coal

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The U.S. Congress has experienced a dramatic year and a half under President Donald Trump. With a conservative majority in both the House and the Senate, Republican policies have upended the trajectory of the Obama administration, with mixed results. Ahead of the midterm elections, Rep. Liz Cheney sat down with the Star-Tribune to discuss some of the more controversial moments in Washington, energy in Wyoming and her priorities going forward if she keeps her seat.

(This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

From the controversy surrounding President Donald Trump’s dismissal of U.S. intelligence findings on Russia to his criticism of NATO and introduction of tariffs, there is a lot of uncertainty around foreign affairs right now. What is your take on how the president is handling foreign policy?

I think, overall, we are headed in a good direction.

I thought it was really interesting (Aug. 2) you had all the intel chiefs go to the White House briefing room and lay out what the Russians are doing. I think it’s good that the president walked back what he said – or said he misspoke – when he was in Helsinki.

I think we are really in an unprecedented situation globally in terms of the nature of the threats we face, the magnitude of the threats we face, how complicated they are and how our adversaries are able to really attack us across a multitude of fronts, simultaneously.

On the tariff situation, you have to look at where we started from. Where we started was not a fair playing field. I think what the president is doing is saying, ‘We’ve got to have markets we can get access to in a way that’s fair.’ What he’s doing now is negotiating.

I’ve talked to the president about it … to say please be very aware of the blowback on our Ag industry in particular. So far in Wyoming we haven’t felt it as intensely as other states, partly because we don’t have soy beans. But, I think it’s something that we have to really be focused on.

I think the president is taking a different approach than we’ve seen in the past and I’m hopeful it will lead to better results.

Economists say trade wars just don’t work. Do you look at the U.S. entering into a potential trade war with China as something that is dangerous to our interests?

I don’t like the idea of trade wars. I would say it a little bit differently. China is the big problem. I also think it’s going to be important for us to have alliances with the Europeans to go after China. China is the problem with respect to trade, with respect to military developments. They are the problem with respect to what they are doing globally, really trying to supplant the United States as the world’s most powerful nation.

Trade wars themselves can be really harmful. We’ll see what happens. Ultimately, the Chinese have a lot more to lose than we do. It’s really hard to overstate the threat that China poses to us right now.

Possibly the most controversial policy from the Trump administration has been detaining asylum seekers’ children. In response to a court order, the Trump administration has reunited a majority of those kids with their parents, but a fair number have not been returned to families. What is your take on that policy and what was your reaction when the news came out?

We face this situation where the previous administration had a catch and release policy. So people trying to get here illegally knew if they bring kids, especially because of the rules where you can’t hold minors for I think more than 20 days, it was a ticket in a lot of cases just to get into the United States.

The effort that the Trump administration made was to try to put a stop to that. The results of having kids held someplace without parents were concerning. I don’t think anybody liked to see that. I think what the Trump administration was trying to do was stop the incentive for people to come in the future illegally.

It’s been a huge challenge in Congress. The views on this issue are so politically charged right now that it is very difficult to get something productive done. What we’ve got to do is not look at a big package that looks at the whole problem at once, but I think we need to take individual pieces of it (including the border wall).

(Editor’s note: Asylum seekers are not necessarily people who have crossed the border into the United States illegally and the border policy separating families included those seeking asylum without having broken the law. An asylum seeker is a person within the United States, or one who has presented themselves at the border, pleading asylum. They do not meet that designation before reaching the U.S. border. Once they’ve applied, the asylum seeker must prove they meet international law’s definition of a refugee to be granted asylum in the U.S.)

What’s your assessment of where the health care debate in Washington is now?

That’s the issue I hear most about as I travel around the state in terms of things we have really got to get fixed.

We’ve taken some important steps, getting rid of the individual mandate. Of course, on the House side we were able to pass pretty significant Obamacare repeal and replace, but we couldn’t get it through the Senate.

The states are supposed to be the place you can have models or experiments. I think, Wyoming, we ought to take a look here at what could be a model for other states. What are some of the steps we could take, for example, to attract other insurance providers in the state? At the end of the day, we’ve got one provider, one insurance company. The lack of competition is a real problem.

In Wyoming we have, for example, passed legislation a couple of years ago that would allow competition across state lines. But you have to do that on a national basis.

What we have to do is look at some of the national fixes and say, “Where are the places we can focus nationally to make sure that a state like Wyoming can get access to more providers than just one?”

Obamacare, with all of its requirements that people don’t need, has really pushed premiums up.

To push back on that a little bit, insurance executives and health experts are blaming the premium increases on uncertainty coming from Washington and the Trump administration’s decision to stop reimbursing companies for cost-sharing reductions. What is your response to that?

That is Obamacare. Obamacare came in and said we are going to lower everybody’s costs but in order to do that – which they didn’t end up doing — they offered a huge amount of government subsidies. And again you have a situation where President Trump is saying ‘Congress, deal with this issue.’

What he’s said in the past is ‘I may not continue to provide those subsidies you’ve seen.’

When [Americans] say ‘We want a majority of Republicans. We want Republicans to run the Senate, Republicans to run the House, a Republican in the White House, people think ‘OK. We’re going to get policies that the Republicans espouse.’ Instead, because of the Senate rules, largely, that’s not what happens. (Sen.) Chuck Schumer and eight Democratic senators are able to stop the kind of reforms you’re talking about.

It is a fundamentally broken system and we’ve got to get back to it as a Congress in order to put fixes in place.

Congress has expanded in 45Q – a tax credit to encourage investment in carbon capture research. The energy secretary has attempted to institute plans to save some coal plants. But the industry still faces challenges. Is there something that Washington should do, or could do, to help the coal industry?

I look at it from a Wyoming perspective. Some of the legislation that I’ve introduced would do things like make sure that we could get back to getting our fair share of the federal royalties. I think continuing to look at things like deregulation and certainty in the market.

I introduced legislation that would say, “You can’t have any more moratoriums of coal leasing on public lands without Congressional approval.”

There’s a big element of education going with it. We do have the ability to pursue clean coal technology, making sure people recognize that if, for example, you’re using Wyoming coal, you’re using much cleaner coal than they’re going to be using otherwise in a lot of countries around the world.

I do think there are some legal routes we should be pursuing; stopping what I think is fundamentally an interference with our interstate commerce rights as a state – when you’ve got those ports closed to our coal.

Both Secretary (Ryan) Zinke and Secretary (Rick) Perry have looked at decommissioned military facilities on the West Coast as export terminals.

There is also a big difference between what the needs are of the eastern coal states and what our needs are.

Some of the eastern states get more attention. A lot of policies that come out of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle that are meant to support the eastern coal states would end up hurting Wyoming. That’s a place where the delegation as a whole is being vigilant.

Some of the policies being proposed from the Department of Energy … would have incentivized the purchase of that eastern coal, so we worked hard against that, with Secretary Perry and the Department of Energy.

The challenge of permitting federal minerals drilled from private land is something you’ve given particular attention to, trying to provide less of a burden from federal agencies on private landowners. What have you done to address that issue?

There’s been a need for us, in my view, to fundamentally change the way the regulations work. We shouldn’t be penalized because we are able to get access to federal minerals.

All of this requires a balance. We want to make sure we are protecting people’s heritage or protecting wildlife migration. But the reality is that technology today allows exploration and access to these resources that has really minimal effects on the surface. It’s primarily a regulatory issue at this point – but make sure that these permits are not held up because the federal government thinks it can exercise control over land or resources that aren’t there.

The other thing that we’ve seen (in oil and gas development) is groups coming in and offering objections once permits have been offered. One of the pieces of legislation that I offered … was to impose a fee. It’s a minimal fee but it says, ‘look if you are going to come in and object to the granting of these permits, and we know that that’s been used as a way to delay development, you are at least going to have to pay a minimal amount so the department isn’t completely stymied by the exploitation of that process.’

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner

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Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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