Stabenow steady amid GOP surge

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington – — Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who officially becomes Michigan's senior senator this week, faces life in the minority as Republicans take power, but vows to work with the GOP to try to make progress.

"I am going to work across the aisle — everywhere I can — where it makes sense for the people of Michigan and for moving the country forward. But when Republicans go too far, when they try to rig the rules against most Americans, I am going stand up and fight," Stabenow told The Detroit News in a recent interview in her Capitol Hill office.

In the last two years, the 64-year-old Lansing Democrat achieved a higher profile in Congress, chairing the Senate Agriculture Committee, winning approval of a five-year national farm bill and landmark mental health care legislation, and becoming an early advocate for a likely presidential run by Hillary Clinton.

She becomes the senior senator through the retirement of Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit. But even as she moves up, Stabenow moves down the pecking order because of forces beyond her control. When Republicans officially assume control of the Senate on Tuesday, Stabenow, in office for 14 years, automatically loses her chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee to a Republican. She will however, remain the top-ranking Democrat on the committee, which oversees farm policy, and retain her position on the Finance, Budget and Energy committees.

Stabenow, who ousted Republican Sen. Spencer Abraham in 2000, plans to seek re-election in four years and says she has no interest in running for governor in 2018.

As senior senator, Stabenow, who served in the state Legislature early in her political career, will take the lead role in recommending candidates to President Barack Obama for vacant federal judgeships in Michigan.

When that opportunity arises, Stabenow said, she'll push for broader diversity.

She is quick to note she holds the seat of the legendary late Michigan Sen. Phil Hart, nicknamed the "conscience of the Senate," as a champion for civil rights reform and other progressive causes; her office is in the Hart Senate Office Building.

A tireless promoter of Michigan and its products — she has a basket of Rice Krispies outside her office — Stabenow also plans to take a more active role in a Great Lakes bipartisan task force.

"You have to earn your way, and I've worked really hard," she said. She recalls that initially, during the 2008-09 auto industry rescue, people looked to Levin for leadership on the issue — even though she had been working for more than a year to win a $25 billion loan for automakers to build advanced technology vehicles.

"You come in as the new person, and you have to earn the recognition and the position that you have," she said.

Stabenow steered the $956 billion, five-year farm bill and helped convince Obama to sign it at Michigan State University last February. "I could not be prouder of your Debbie Stabenow, who has done just extraordinary work," Obama said in February. "We all love Debbie for a lot of reasons."

She and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, introduced mental health care funding legislation in early 2013, and it was approved by Congress in March; it was signed into law by Obama in April. "She is one of the greatest partners you could have in an effort because she is virtually unstoppable — and that is a good thing to have on your side," Blunt said.

The bill was scaled back from its original version, a nationwide funding measure, a two-year pilot program in eight yet-to-be-named states. It won support from police, psychiatric and veterans groups. "This is a real opportunity to complete mental health parity," Stabenow said.

The Agriculture Committee will continue to be pivotal in the coming session, because Congress will take up a reauthorization of child nutrition programs that expire Sept. 30. That includes the federal school lunch and breakfast programs as well as summer food offerings and nutrition for women, infants and children.

Stabenow casts child nutrition programs as critical to national security.

"When 70 percent of the 18- to 24-year-olds cannot sign up for military service because they are too obese today, it is shocking," Stabenow said. A group of 450 generals is working with her and others to maintain health standards in the nutrition bill.

Piano to the rescue

Sometimes, unusual tools are utilized in Congress. Stabenow's is music, and she has used it repeatedly to soothe the savage political beast.

On a Saturday last month, as the Senate was holding an unusual all-day session, Stabenow sat at a three-octave piano that had been wheeled in from the office of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, got a songbook. Her colleagues cajoled her to play

"This was not my idea," she recalled.

In the makeshift piano bar, senators sang Christmas carols as Stabenow, who took eight years of lessons as a child, accompanied them.

In June, she was among a bipartisan group that traveled to Ottawa to meet with members of the Canadian Parliament. At a dinner at the U.S. ambassador's residence, the group decided to sing "Happy Birthday" to a member of Parliament — and when someone asked if anyone could play, Stabenow sat down at the piano.

"Two-and-a-half-hours later, we had done everything from the Beatles (and on) ... people were dancing. It was amazing," Stabenow said. There was a "totally different mood" for talks between the Canadian and U.S. officials the following day.

Stabenow said that when Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi, became the ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, she bonded with him over their mutual love of the piano. Cochran has a baby grand piano in his office. "I sat down and played, and then we played together," she said.

Later, during marathon sessions to reach agreement on the five-year farm bill, Stabenow said: "Whenever things were getting tough on the farm bill, I said 'Let's go play the piano.' "

Senior senator

Levin, who retired at the end of 2014, was frequently on the national and international stage because he chaired the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee. But he said Stabenow's assignments are "really important for Michigan," noting how many tax and agriculture issues impact the state.

"She's really in exceptionally strong positions for Michigan, but she's very well-liked and well-respected," he said. "That's what really counts. She's really earned respect. She's an exceptional person. People really like her."

Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, noted that " 'senior senator' is an honorific title, although it usually recognizes that a senator is moving up the seniority ladder."

Sabato said Stabenow is around the 25th most senior senator of the 100, "which is obviously useful to a state. On the other hand, she'll no longer be chair of Senate Agriculture with the Democrats' loss of control."

Stabenow, he said, "is well-liked within the Democratic caucus. She's not one of the more visible senators, and you won't see her often on TV shows. But that's not necessarily a bad thing."