When U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey visited the Times’ offices last Friday, he identified Iran’s nuclear weapons program as the top international issue facing America.
Toomey explained that economic sanctions imposed by the United States, the United Nations and the European Union are hurting Iran, and that many citizens aren’t happy with new President Hassan Rouhani.
The Republican was skeptical of easing sanctions.
“I think that’s a very bad idea,” he said Friday.
In fact, Toomey called for more sanctions to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear program. After Thanksgiving, he was hoping the Senate and House of Representatives would vote on a measure to strengthen sanctions.
“We’ll win that vote,” he predicted Friday.
Of course, one day later, the United States and Iran announced a deal that would ease sanctions in exchange for Iran agreeing to suspend and stop expanding part of its nuclear program.
Members of Congress, including Democrats, criticized the deal struck by the Obama administration. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referred to the so-called historic agreement as a “historic mistake.”
On Monday, Toomey said the risks of the deal are far greater than the likely benefits. He noted that Iran does not have to halt construction, nor destroy, its nuclear facility at Arak. He also pointed out that Iran does not have to suspend its uranium enrichment activities.
“Despite the administration’s objections, I think the Congress should vote for tougher sanctions as soon as possible,” Toomey said Monday.
Other issues Toomey discussed during his visit on Friday included the Affordable Care Act.
Obamacare, in Toomey’s view, discourages job creation. He expects premiums to increase in price dramatically as older and less healthy people enroll in greater numbers than younger and healthier people.
People having trouble accessing the website to enroll is the least of the problems, he said, pointing out that 5 million Americans have had their private health insurance policies canceled.
“They like their coverage and they can’t keep their coverage,” he said. “It’s outrageous.”
Toomey criticized Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, for muscling through the so-called “nuclear option,” an easing of filibuster rules that would require only 51 votes, not 60, to confirm executive and judicial nominees. Three Democrats joined all Republicans in opposing the measure.
“It was a sad day for the country,” Toomey said.
Toomey insisted that the change was not needed, noting that the Senate has confirmed 99.8 percent of Obama’s nominees. The lawmaker said greater consensus is better than getting a mere 51 votes, adding that he expects the change to lead to “more polarization and less cooperation,” not to mention extremely liberal judicial nominees.
“That’s how we got Obamacare,” he said.
In terms of the economy, Toomey wants to see a return to an unemployment rate of under 5 percent, with rising salaries for workers and multiple job offers for new college graduates.
“That’s a normal, healthy, expanding economy,” he said.
Toomey sees the federal government holding back an economic recovery, pointing to mandates and regulations imposed on businesses by the Environmental Protection Agency and other entities.
The senator also noted the 2.3-percent tax on the sale of medical devices that is part of Obamacare. The tax has a stifling effect on growth, he argued, adding that southeastern and southwestern Pennsylvania are hubs of production of medical devices, from pacemakers to artificial hip joints to surgical tools.
The legislator is calling for a repeal of that provision of Obamacare.
“We don’t have the votes to repeal the whole thing,” he said.
Remember the 16-day partial government shutdown that started on Oct. 1 and ended only when Congress finally agreed with Obama to raise the debt ceiling? Well, authorized spending levels expire on Jan. 15.
Toomey is a member of the Senate-House Budget Conference Committee that is tasked with setting spending levels for the rest of the fiscal year. He hopes to rein in any Democrats who want to increase taxes and spending and hopes a deal can be struck to avoid another crisis.
“Sooner would be better rather than later,” he said.
In the long term, he favors a proposal that would automatically extend continuing resolutions to fund the government when appropriations bills are not approved.
“September 30th would be just another day,” he said.
Toomey said he doesn’t agree on too many issues with fellow Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey Jr., a Democrat, but that the two have a great working relationship.
“Senator Casey is a good man,” he said.
Specifically, Toomey and Casey have worked closely to choose eight people who were nominated to the federal judiciary to represent the state’s three judicial districts. All eight were confirmed by the Senate.
The senators understand that progress cannot be made by disagreeing.
“You make progress by looking at areas of agreement,” Toomey said.
Looking ahead to next year’s race for governor, Toomey said it’s too early to determine which Democrat will emerge to challenge Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.
Corbett was elected handily in 2010, a strong year for Republicans, while Toomey edged Democrat Joe Sestak.
However, 2012 went the Democrats’ way. Casey was re-elected, and Obama carried the state, marking the sixth consecutive time Democrats have won Pennsylvania in a presidential year. The Democrats also won the attorney general post for the first time while maintaining control of the state treasurer and auditor general offices.
“It’s a tough state for Republicans,” said Toomey, up for re-election in 2016. ••