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Control of the U.S. Senate hangs in the balance as midterm results are counted

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two days after the voting ended, we still do not know who will control the United States Senate. Democrats in Pennsylvania flipped a seat to their side. Vote counting continues in Nevada and Arizona, and a runoff is coming in Georgia. So this is almost like a sports playoff series. Whichever party wins two of those three - Nevada, Arizona, Georgia - gets a Senate majority. Republicans, overall, did worse than expected and worse than the party out of power normally does in a midterm election, yet the chambers are so closely divided, they may still capture the House or the Senate. And that is the state of play, as Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey joins us. Senator, welcome back.

CORY BOOKER: It's really good to be on. Thank you.

INSKEEP: What do you think the country was telling you on Tuesday?

BOOKER: Well, obviously, we're still counting votes in many places, but as you said, this bucks a significant historical trend, not only about the party in power during midterms, but also, when inflation has been this high, the party in power usually gets decimated. And I think there are a few things to note. First and foremost, that this idea of protecting our democracy was salient, and the fact that the Republicans fielded literally hundreds of candidates that were denying elections and even saying things as outrageous as we saw with the gubernatorial candidate in Wisconsin, that if I win, Republicans will never lose again in the state. Second, I think that there was a significant Republican overreach on issues that the majority of Americans on both sides of the aisle support, like the ability to control your own body and as well as things that they were openly talking about taking away - privatizing Social Security, cutting Medicare.

And then the final thing at least I tried to do on the campaign trail, which I thought was really resonant, was we are in an economic crisis, and which party would have your back the most? When the Republicans were in charge, when Donald Trump was there, their signature bill was a massive tax cut to the wealthiest amongst us who just didn't need it. When Democrats were in charge, they lowered prescription drug prices, lowered medical costs, helped people out who were struggling with evictions and did the kind of commonsense bread-and-butter things that were fighting for working people.

INSKEEP: I suppose that you can make a case for all of that. It was a bad night for Republicans. And yet many millions of people did vote for Republican candidates, voted for candidates on the Republican side that even many Republicans considered to be very flawed. And Republicans seem likely to control at least one house of Congress next year. That is on their bad night. How is Washington going to be different next year, do you think?

BOOKER: Well, I think that they've made it clear. I listen very closely to what colleagues on the other side of the aisle say, that one of the biggest themes they had in this election was going after Joe Biden in a very personal way. So I imagine if they take the House of Representatives, a lot of their time will be dealing with investigations of Joe Biden. They've personalized the efforts. And I think, unfortunately, we're going to see a lot of that kind of politics of personal destruction again.

But what I'm hoping is, is that what we've done when we had control of both houses continues. We have passed the most significant bipartisan bills, really, in generations, whether it's the Infrastructure Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, the first gun legislation for gun safety in 30 years. And so this spirit of bringing our country together on issues we agree on has to continue, not only for getting basic things done to help Americans, but still, I believe that there are people questioning our democracy, and we need to show that good people on both sides of the aisle can come together, can find common ground and rally our country towards common cause.

INSKEEP: As you and your fellow Democrats head toward this lame-duck session, this session which will be after the election but before the new Congress is sworn in, can you talk us through your thinking? I guess you must have to assume that Republicans will capture the House, that it will be much more difficult to legislate. And so what do you want to get done before you lose the chance to do it?

BOOKER: Well, I think there are a lot of things that are urgent for Democrats. No. 1, given what Clarence Thomas wrote in the Dobbs decision, we want to secure marriage equality. No. 2, I think the biggest agenda item for me in terms of helping working-class people is taking that child tax credit that gave the biggest middle-class and working-class tax cut in American history, that cut child poverty to the greatest degree in American history, I would like to make the child tax credit permanent. It would be a massive help to a lot of families. In addition to that, we've got to do basic things, like fund the government as well as what we're continuing to do, which is balance the judiciary by passing and confirming a lot of judges.

INSKEEP: Can I just ask - you said fund the government. Of course, some Republicans have talked about a debt ceiling crisis. The debt ceiling has to be raised sometime early next year. Some Republicans have said this is an opportunity for us to get leverage to get things we want. President Biden has said we're not going to do that. That does raise the prospect of some kind of U.S. government default. Would you, in that lame-duck session, while Democrats can, perhaps extend the date of the debt ceiling into the future in some way?

BOOKER: Well, I certainly hope we can do it. You've had presidents from Trump to Biden to Obama just say this is a ridiculous way to run a government. We're the only country that does that. This is not spending money. It is actually saying that we're going to cover the bills that we've already racked up. And it's always, unfortunately, a time of consternation, where some people want to try to undermine the full faith and credit of the United States government. So I hope we...

INSKEEP: I just want to cut in here. Are you saying - when you hope we can do that, are you saying that you hope that you can extend the debt ceiling during the lame-duck session at the end of this year?

BOOKER: Again, for me, that would be great. It's going to be a very crowded time, and I think we're going to have to pick and choose amongst priorities.

INSKEEP: So you don't know that your leadership is on with that.

BOOKER: That's exactly right.

INSKEEP: Can I ask another question? Because, of course, Ron DeSantis had a big reelection in Florida. He is increasingly seen as in conflict with Donald Trump. I'm presuming that you would not want either of those men to be president after 2024. But tell me who, as a Democrat, you'd rather face - rather, your party to face in 2024 as the Republican nominee - Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis?

BOOKER: You know, I'm an old track guy, and it's not about the person in the blocks next to you; it's about running your best race. Democrats have two more years to try to deliver on the kind of things that Americans want and paced - post a vision for the future that excites people. I understand that Ron DeSantis had a very good day in Florida. I know that the congressional races there, much of that was the result of serious gerrymandering in that state. But we've got two years to work for the American people. God, I know people want to focus on 2024, but we got to still get through 2022 and 2023. And we're a country that still faces challenges with COVID, that still has high inflation. We've got work to do.

INSKEEP: Is there a sliver of more conservative voters to whom you think you can still appeal and come away with a more decisive result than, say, this past midterm was?

BOOKER: You know, absolutely. When I was out campaigning for Mark Kelly, he had me go to give a speech with this incredible group of Republicans that were so disenchanted with the extreme right-wing swing of their party. And the conversations we had, the common ground that we found was very encouraging to me. This nation needs desperately to put more indivisible back into this one nation under God. And I think that there is a powerful middle in this country that just wants sanity in their politics, and I hope to be one of those leaders to help provide it.

INSKEEP: Of course, Mark Kelly is the Democratic candidate for Senate in Arizona, one of the undecided races at this point.

Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

BOOKER: Thank you very much. All the best.

INSKEEP: He was talking with us from Newark. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.