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Sen. Dick Durbin Explains How Democrats Move Forward After Trump's Speech

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now we're going to hear from the Senate's second-highest ranking Democrat on President Trump's address to Congress last night. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois is the minority whip, and he joins us from Capitol Hill. Welcome to the program once again.

DICK DURBIN: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: One Democratic House member issued a single-word response to the Trump speech - resist. Is that your view? Or do you think Democrats should try to join in trying to influence Republican ideas on, say, health care?

DURBIN: Well, of course we should engage the president, the new administration and the Republican majority if it's a constructive effort, a bipartisan effort to deal with issues we believe in. Infrastructure - sign us up. Let's sit down and talk about how we pay for it. That's one of the critical elements. Immigration - the president seemed to have discovered comprehensive immigration reform yesterday with a group he had in the White House. If he'd like to sit down with the Gang of Eight - I was part of it in the Senate - we'd like to talk to him about how we think this is a good way, a bipartisan way to deal with immigration.

SIEGEL: On immigration, I gather the - on immigration, I gather that the president spoke about possibly approving a path to legal status for today's undocumented immigrants but not citizenship. Are those terms under which you think Democrats could work together with him?

DURBIN: Let's start the conversation. We're at a very bleak point where we've had executive orders on Muslim ban for travel. We've had extension of definitions of in - crimes that make you ineligible to stay in the United States. We have a lot of uncertainty, a lot of anxiety. We have the DACA DREAMers. Let's get the conversation underway. I'm ready to pull up a chair at that table.

SIEGEL: But President Obama deported a great many people. Some people would say the language is more different than the action here.

DURBIN: Well, and let me make this clear. I think both political parties agree without equivocation anyone who has a criminal record and is dangerous should be gone, period, either in jail or deported from the United States or perhaps both ultimately. But when it comes to the folks that are currently being deported, we're dealing with some who are in an expanded category of crimes that reach as far back as traffic offenses. Those are certainly not dangerous people. And I think we ought to find a reasonable standard to keep our country safe but to bring in those immigrants who can make a positive contribution.

SIEGEL: On health care, are ideas like those that President Trump spelled out, like tax credits, health savings accounts, giving the states more authority over Medicaid - are those all nonstarters for you?

DURBIN: Well, most of them have been debated at length. And there's a real serious question. For instance, this notion - if you could just buy health insurance across state lines - really? When I ask insurance companies about that, they almost laugh out loud. To think that you're going to sign up for a hospital in another state or a doctor in another state, it's really unlikely. It's just used as a rhetorical device. But what the president did last night is (inaudible) Republicans have done consistently - repeal and replace, and here are the principles. Come on. It's been six years. For goodness sakes, come up with something.

SIEGEL: One more point - you faulted President Trump for not mentioning Russia's cyberattacks during the campaign last year. Are you now confident that the congressional committee investigations that are supposed to be getting underway will be able to determine whether there are enough questions about Russian influence to warrant a larger inquiry?

DURBIN: I happen to think the course of action we're taking is good but not good enough. Giving this to the Senate Intelligence Committee sadly means that the hearings will be behind closed doors. And any work product that is ever produced is likely to be classified and not available to the public - better to have something that's independent and transparent. I've joined my colleagues in calling for a commission. Let's find some people we trust. How about Colin Powell? How about Sandra Day O'Connor? These are people who I think both political parties have faith in. Let's get something that the American people can share in hearing.

SIEGEL: Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, thanks for talking with us once again.

DURBIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.