Experience has taught Rep. Barbara Lee a lot
Rep. Barbara Lee has been around Washington, D.C., for a long time. She remembers watching President Richard Nixon's helicopter take off after he resigned when she was an intern. As a staff member for Congressman Ron Dellums and then as a congresswoman herself, she has worked during the Ford, Carter, Bush, Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. But she says she's never before seen the obstructionist tactics that have defined Congress under President Barack Obama.
"Anything he puts forth, ideas or legislation to create jobs, for example, the American Jobs Act, is dead on arrival," Lee observed. "The Republican tea party members have coalesced with moderate Republicans to say no to everything."
I asked her what it's like to try to govern in such an acrimonious atmosphere.
"I've never seen this before," she said. "With (George W. Bush), of course we disagreed on policy and on the war, but we tried to negotiate and resolve our differences. My HIV and AIDS legislation (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), I brought it to the White House, and they got it. We worked together and saved millions of lives. That was Barbara Lee and George Bush. I don't think Barbara Lee and John Boehner could do that because the tea party is driving the show."
And Lee, D-Oakland, doesn't see the tea party's influence waning. I asked if she thinks some of the vehement opposition to Obama is racial.
"We have the first African-American president, and we've never seen this happen before. It's difficult to question what is in people's hearts. But with the 'birther' comments, people have to put two and two together," she said.
As Lee pointed out, the obstructionist strategy is more than a nuisance. It is harming people.
"The tea party is blocking comprehensive immigration reform and extended unemployment compensation," she said. "In California, as of last month, 516,000 people lost their unemployment insurance in December. They're living in cars. They can't pay rent." The budget submitted by Republican Congressman Paul Ryan cuts 70 percent of the safety net.
Somehow, she doesn't get discouraged.
"You have to be the resistance. You have to keep trying to work with the Republicans to do something that works for the country. You can't have a defeatist attitude," Lee said. "I think being a black woman in America, a double minority, I'm used to having to battle. It's another battlefront. You can't rest."
There is a bipartisan women's caucus. The members may not be able to agree on an issue such as choice, but, Lee said, they look for areas where they can work together. For example, she circulated a letter signed by women of both parties, and men, urging the State Department to assist in the recovery of the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls.
"I think women are a lot more astute at finding ways to work together," she said. As we talked in a popular Oakland coffee shop, a young woman approached her: "I just want to say thank you Congresswoman Lee."
Rejecting defeatism and cynicism, she persists.
"Every now and then you see something significant," she said. She pointed to the Authorization for the Use of Military Force. In the aftermath of the Sept, 11 attacks, she was the only legislator in the House or the Senate to vote against it. She called it a blank check for war.
"Now, 13 years later, I have Republicans joining me in support of repealing it. It takes a long time, and you have to build up a lot of seniority in Congress, but there's a glimmer of hope we can repeal that. You have to hang in there and be smart about how you work. And not get cynical." The House blocked the repeal of the law on May 23.
Lee takes the long view, focusing on the accomplishments and possibilities -- her role in bringing funds to her district that create jobs, her success in including anti-poverty language in the Democratic platform and appropriations bills.
She's also working on the normalization of relations with Cuba, tackling each obstacle, one by one. She said she's cautiously optimistic it will happen in the Obama administration.
And while the pundits are predicting Democratic losses in the midterm elections that could result in a Republican-controlled Senate, Lee thinks it's possible for the Democrats to take control of the House.
Is she an eternal optimist?
"You have to be in politics," she said, laughing. "But I do see progress."
She said her mother, who will celebrate her 90th birthday on Friday, keeps her grounded.
Since our interview, she issued a statement "respectfully disagreeing" with President Obama's plan for a continued military presence in Afghanistan:
"After 13 years at war, it's obvious that there is no military solution in Afghanistan and it is far past time to end the war and bring all of our troops home now. At the very least, Congress should debate and vote on this agreement that will keep our troops in Afghanistan for years to come and will cost billions more in spending. Enough is enough."
She never gives up.
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