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Rep. Barbara Lee on Cutting the Military Budget, Abortion Rights & Why She’s Running for Senate

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As President Biden proposes his new budget, which expands military spending, as well as social services, we speak with Democratic Congressmember Barbara Lee, co-chair of the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus. She recently reintroduced the People Over Pentagon Act to cut $100 billion from the Pentagon budget and reallocate funds to overlooked priorities like healthcare and education. Lee is one of three House Democrats who have announced their candidacy for outgoing California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s seat. Lee is the highest-ranking Black woman appointed to House leadership and would be just the third Black woman to serve in the Senate’s 233-year history. She shares her platform on foreign policy, reproductive rights and racial justice on Democracy Now! “We’re going to fight to make sure that the resources of our country go directly to the American people, because it’s a budget for the American people,” says Lee.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden announced his proposed $6.8 trillion budget plan Wednesday that would increase military spending while also introducing new social programs, reducing future budget deficits and reigniting debate in the divided Congress on raising the debt limit.

This comes after our next guest, Democratic Congressmember Barbara Lee, co-chair of the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus, introduced the People Over Pentagon Act to cut $100 billion from the defense budget and reallocate funds to overlooked priorities like healthcare and education.

This week, Congressmember Lee welcomed the passage of legislation to repeal the 2002 and 1991 authorizations for the use of military force out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeting they had, quote, “marked up a bill to finally repeal the Iraq war authorizations — a moment I’ve been working towards for 20 years.” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer said it’s his hope to bring the legislation to a vote on the floor by early next month.

It was September 14, 2001, three days after the 9/11 attacks, when Congress held a five-hour debate on whether to grant the president expansive powers to use military force in retaliation for the attacks, which had passed in the Senate by a vote of 98 to 0. Congressmember Barbara Lee, her voice trembling with emotion as she spoke from the House floor, was the sole congressmember to vote no. The final vote, 420 to 1.

REP. BARBARA LEE: September 11th changed the world. Our deepest fears now haunt us. Yet I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States. … As we act, let us not to become the evil that we deplore.

AMY GOODMAN: That was 2001. Now Congressmember Lee is running for Senate from California to fill the seat being vacated by longtime Senator Dianne Feinstein.

REP. BARBARA LEE: I didn’t quit when I refused to give the president completely unlimited war powers after September 11th. And in the face of countless death threats, I was the only “no” vote. I didn’t quit then, and I won’t quit now.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Lee is the third Democrat to run for Senator Feinstein’s seat, along with Congressmembers Katie Porter of Orange County and Adam Schiff of Los Angeles. If elected, Lee would be just the third Black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate’s 233-year history, after Carol Moseley Braun and now-Vice President Kamala Harris.

For more, Congressmember Lee joins us now, member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, chair emeritus of the Progressive Caucus and a member of the Steering and Policy Committee, the highest-ranking Black woman appointed to House leadership.

Congressmember Lee, welcome back to Democracy Now! This is the first time we’re getting to talk to you since your announcement. Why you want to run for the Senate, and how you would apply your views to what was just presented yesterday, President Biden proposing the budget, increasing the weapons budget, but also talking about preserving Social Security?

REP. BARBARA LEE: Well, thank you so much. Nice being with you again, Amy.

And first of all, yes, I am running for the United States Senate, and I intend to win this race. There are so many issues that have not been addressed in the Senate, such as — and I’ll just give you one, for example — you don’t hear the debate around lifting people out of poverty and inequality from many senators at all. And, you know, in California, we have 20 million people living below the poverty line. And I’m running to make sure that we have a voice, that those people and constituents who are marginalized know that they’re being seen and knowing that I’m fighting for an economy that works for everyone, including them. And food insecurity. You look at the climate crisis. You look at the housing crisis that we have in California and throughout the country.

I have a lens that’s unique. I am a progressive Black woman. I’ve been able to not only fight and stand strong and take on even my party at times, but I’ve been able to negotiate legislation and to get the job done, in a way that you see now with the repeal, for example, of the authorization to use military force. Amy, I’ve tried over and over over again to get the Senate to take this up. I have passed the repeal of the Iraq authorization in the House several times. I went to Senator Kaine, and we started working together. And it took a while, but finally this week we got the repeal out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a bipartisan vote. President Biden issued a statement of administration policy that he would sign it. He said that when I got it off of the House floor last year. And so, it takes time. It’s persistence. But I intend to be that persistent in the Senate and to fill some of those gaps that are there.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Congressmember, I wanted to ask you about your People Over the Pentagon Act. At a time when the United States is ramping up its military spending, billions being earmarked for the war in Ukraine, why do you feel it’s so essential to reduce the Pentagon budget and utilize those funds more for services to the American people?

REP. BARBARA LEE: Well, thank you for that question, because I didn’t just start now in terms of taking on the Pentagon budget. You know that I worked for our beloved Congressman Ron Dellums for 11 years. He chaired the House Armed Services Committee. We have been trying to reduce defense spending forever. And we’re making some progress in terms of building support, because so many members are afraid of touching the defense budget.

But I just have to say, first of all, I don’t vote for the National Defense Authorization Act, because it’s always been excessive. Secondly, a mere $100 billion cut doesn’t even touch our national security, doesn’t even touch what we need to do to help our troops. We need to invest more in supporting our troops. Many are on food stamps. Thirdly, we need to make sure that our domestic priorities are intact and moving forward, and we have resources here that we need in our own country for food insecurity issues, for homelessness, for all the issues you know so well, the domestic priorities. So, 100 billion won’t even touch it.

Let me tell you, there’s waste, fraud and abuse, at least $150 billion, that taxpayers have provided to the Pentagon that just is scammed. We can’t even get the Pentagon to audit — to be audited. It failed one audit. And so, the taxpayers ought to be very concerned about how waste, fraud and abuse is taking place at the Pentagon through this budget. And to introduce an increase of $28 billion is unacceptable to me, because we have the resources to enhance and make sure our national security is strong with the $858 billion now that’s there. And, in fact, we need to cut it by at least $100 billion. That’s a minimum cut that we need.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about the president’s proposed third budget? Aside from the Pentagon spending increase that you have criticized, what about other aspects of his budget appeal to you, even understanding that a lot of it will not get through the Republican-controlled House?

REP. BARBARA LEE: Well, I think aspects such as making sure that those who are wealthy pay their fair share, over $400,000 a year. And I think what the president has done is put forth a budget where he shows how to raise revenue, reduce the deficit that the Trump administration created as a result of the tax cuts for the wealthy. He’s preserving Social Security and Medicare, making sure that — and I’m on the committee on — House, on the State and Foreign Operations Committee, which funds our development and diplomacy initiatives. He’s provided for about an 11% increase, because we’ve got to do more around the world in terms of development and diplomacy as it relates to global health, women’s health.

So, the budget, I think, is reasonable. We’re drilling down on it now to see exactly what it means for certain constituencies. But I think that — and I serve on the Budget Committee and the Appropriations Committee. And so, we’re going to fight to make sure that the resources of our country go directly to the American people, because it’s a budget for the people. And that’s what we’re saying. We’re going to look at our funding priorities, because a budget is a moral document. It shows and demonstrates where our values are. And this budget shows that we’re fighting for the people. I, again, oppose the defense spending portion of it, because I think that the Pentagon has enough resources. Our national security is strong. This Pentagon budget, once again, is excessive, and I think we need to put more resources into our domestic budget, because people need to be able to live their lives in a way that they deserve as Americans, and need to be able to have economic security so that they don’t worry about the future for their children.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Barbara Lee, if you could talk about this day and age we’re in, when it comes to reproductive rights? You not only bravely went to the floor over 20 years ago to be the lone vote against military action after 9/11, but you also, in terms of bravery, came out and talked about, on a very different subject, what happened to you decades ago, growing up in El Paso at a time when Roe v. Wade didn’t exist, as it doesn’t now, and what that meant in your own life in having an abortion in this country, or having to leave this country to have one. And then talk about what it means to be, if you were to win, only the third Black woman in U.S. Senate history.

REP. BARBARA LEE: Amy, you know, yes, it was very difficult for me to talk about having an abortion, because, like it should be now, my mother and I decided it was our own personal business. It was my personal decision. It’s a person’s right to make those healthcare decisions, so I never talked about it. And then the stigma, of course. And so it was something that I kept to myself.

What happened was, yes, I went to Juárez, Mexico, and it was a back alley. And I’ll never forget that, because I was terrified, because it was illegal. This was way before Roe v. Wade. It was illegal in the United States, of course, in California. I was in Southern California then, at San Fernando — in San Fernando. And it was illegal in Mexico. And so, I knew that I could die, because then Black women were dying from septic abortions disproportionately to any other type of cause of death. And I knew that I could be put in jail, because it was a criminal offense. And it was terrifying. I was one who survived, Amy. And, you know, it was a terrifying moment for me, for my mother.

And so, fast-forward to today. When the Texas decisions and these restrictive laws came down, I felt compelled that finally I had to share my story so that people understood they had a member of Congress who saw them, who got it, who know that experience, and trying to fight to try to make sure that reproductive justice is available, and reproductive freedom available, for everyone, because the fear now of being criminalized in these states, the fear of not being able to access abortion care and what people need to make their own healthcare decisions is traumatic. And so I decided to do that.

And then, as co-chair of the Pro-Choice Caucus, I have been fighting, since day one, to repeal, for example, the Hyde Amendment, which was a major step to get Democrats and Republicans to come together on, because, you know, the Hyde Amendment denies access to abortion care for low-income women, who are primarily women of color. So I introduced the EACH Act. No one thought we could get it done, but I got close to 180 co-sponsors, which repealed the Hyde Amendment. And then, I’ve been able to keep it out of the appropriations bills for the last two years, because that’s where the Hyde Amendment takes effect. So, you know, it’s a lifetime struggle, Amy. And it’s, you know, something that, as a Black woman, I understand.

And just transitioning to my comments about the Senate, you know, the lens of a Black woman has been missing. You mentioned how long it’s been. That’s since 1789, only two African American women, serving a total of 10 years. And can you imagine the perspective of Black women and what it would do not only to strengthen and provide for more focus, and living — and providing for policies that would help the Black community, communities of color, low-income communities, working men and women? This helps our own country, because Black women, when we lift up and crack these barriers and challenges, we’re doing this not only for ourselves but for everybody. We’re doing it for everyone in this country, the LGBTQ community, Black and Brown communities, low-income communities, poor communities, working families. We do this. We help strengthen our country to make liberty and justice for all real for everyone. And that lens, that perspective, my experience, that’s not in the Senate now.

And so I’m fighting, like you would not believe, to win this race. We’re raising money at, low donors, recurring donors, people who can commit to $5 a month, $10 a month. That’s how we’re going to win this. It’s a people-powered campaign. And I look forward to serving in the Senate, to bring a perspective on every policy that’s lacking and it’s not there, Amy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Congresswoman, I know you only have very little time left, but I just wanted to ask you if you could briefly, in the same vein, talk about this resolution that you introduced on International Women’s Day with other women members of Congress on a feminist foreign policy. What would a feminist foreign policy look like?

REP. BARBARA LEE: Well, let me give you one example. I have legislation calling for women to be at the table when climate policies are being created. Women in vulnerable communities are most impacted by, and we do — we have a climate crisis upon us. It is a crisis. And so, women should be at the table on every single foreign policy issue, on every single climate issue. And so, I believe highlighting this through my resolution gets the public aware of the fact that women are not at the table on so many issues throughout the world. And so, I’m talking about women in our own country but also women everywhere in the world. And the climate crisis is an example. Women are most impacted, women and children, behind the climate crisis, because of the work that they do in their villages and in their communities. Why shouldn’t they be sitting there helping develop the strategies that are going to mitigate against the planet burning at this point?

AMY GOODMAN: Barbara Lee, we want to thank you so much for being with us. Barbara Lee is Democratic congressmember from California, member of the House Appropriations Committee and ranking member of the Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, serves as co-chair of the Steering and Policy Committee, former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, chair emeritus of the Progressive Caucus, co-chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Health Task Force, and co-chair of the pro-Choice Caucus, also serves as chair of the Task Force on Poverty and Opportunity, now running for the U.S. Senate. Thank you so much for being with us.

REP. BARBARA LEE: Nice being with you, Amy. Thank you.

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