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Congressman Robert Wexler (D-FL).
Audio: Part I and Part II.
In Their Own Words

Rep. Robert Wexler
Florida Congressman speaks on Israel and elections.

Robert Wexler is a Democratic member of Congress who is known as a committed advocate for several health care and prescription drugs initiatives, enhanced benefits for veterans, increased funding for public schools, and both a foreign policy and an energy policy that protects Americans at home while advancing our interests abroad in Israel, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Wexler is also a nationally recognized advocate for the integrity of our election system. Since 1998, he has represented Florida's 19th Congressional district, which comprises portions of Broward and Palm Beach Counties.

PJV: Congressman Wexler, you are well known for having taken a strong stand in the 2000 election to ensure the voting rights of your constituents in Palm Beach and Broward counties. There are a lot of concerns about the coming election from just a technical level. We have proposals on the Republican side for voter ID; we have problems in poor communities with felons who have served their time and in some states do not have the right to vote; and we have the verified voting problem with touch-screen and other electronic voting systems. What do you think remains to be done in terms of electoral reform?

In Florida, we have ended the era of ATM-style election machines that do not have a voter-verified paper trail, and as a result, starting this August in our primary and then for the general election for President, we will have in all of Florida’s 67 counties, voter-verified paper trail elections. That’s what we need all across the country. And we will not be able, on the federal level, to implement that for the 2008 general election, although I’m still hopeful that I, along with Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey, will be able to pass legislation that will provide the financial resources for any jurisdiction – county or state – in the country that wishes to transition from ATM electronic voting machines to a voter-verified paper system, and give them the financial resources to do it.

So I think long-term, the goal is for every precinct in America to have a voter-verified paper trail so we can do reliable recounts, so that Americans can feel certain that their vote will be counted precisely in the manner in which they cast it. And that’s what I think we need to do.

PJV: Some Floridians are upset about the Democratic National Committee refusing to seat Florida's delegation because Florida held its primary prior to Super Tuesday. What do you think Florida and the DNC should do to resolve this impasse?

Well, Number 1, for both the benefit of Florida and the Democratic nominee for President, whomever she or he may be, Florida’s delegates, along with Michigan’s, need to be seated. You cannot go into a national election with Florida and Michigan without representation. It’s just a preposterous position to be in. So Florida and Michigan must, in my view, be represented at the convention. And the party needs to sit down, shortly, and figure out a resolution, which leads absolutely to the sitting of both states’ delegations.

PJV: As a superdelegate who was not selected at all, so you were not chosen in violation of DNC rules, do you personally expect to be seated at the convention in Denver and represent Florida even if the pledged delegates are not?

I am absolutely certain that Florida will have a delegation in full at the convention. I cannot, I don’t want to even imagine a situation where that does not happen. But for that to be the case, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Party is ceding the most important swing states in the country, and I just cannot imagine that happening.

PJV: Do you expect that it will seat the delegation as it is currently constituted or will a new vote of some sort be required?

That remains to be seen. And it needs to be worked out. A compromise must be reached that satisfies both parties. You know, that’s the hard work ahead of us, but not having a delegation is not an option.

PJV: I know you have endorsed Senator Obama. When did you make that decision and what moved you to do so?

I endorsed Sen. Obama very early on, I think within the first couple of weeks of his campaign. And I did so for a number of reasons, but primarily because as a Democratic member of the House of Representatives in January of 2009, I want to have a Democratic President to unite the country around a moderate, progressive agenda and I am certain that with President Obama we will implement a universal health care system, and we will do so with a consensus rather than just a partisan, dragged-out fight.

I’m also convinced that, with President Obama, we will have an invigorated foreign policy; but especially, which is most important to me and my constituents, we will have a President who is totally committed to the security of the State of Israel. Someone who respects, cherishes, the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel. And somebody who is able to talk to our allies in Europe and Asia and in Latin America, and to repair the damage that the Bush administration has done to America’s standing in the world. I think Sen. Obama will be a transformational president, both domestically and internationally.

PJV: Who do you think would be the stronger Democratic candidate against Senator John McCain?

No question: it is Sen. Obama who will be our strongest candidate. He is very attractive to independent voters and to moderate Republicans. He will get a crossover vote. While he disagrees with conservatives, he does so civilly. He will unite the Democrats and he’s going to create a bigger tent for us, including independents and Republicans, and he’s going to take that big tent into office, and that’s how we’re going to do things like universal health care and improve education and address global climate change – with a consensus of people that the Democratic Party has not been able to create in a very long time. That’s why I’m so excited about his candidacy.

And, of course, the last half-dozen polls have shown that Sen. Obama runs anywhere from five to eight points better than does Sen. Clinton in a race again Sen. McCain.

PJV: Do you feel that media have overhyped the rhetoric between the Obama and Clinton camps in order to create conflict and drive up ratings?

I don’t know if it’s some kind of media conspiracy, but there are differences. The differences pale in significance when compared to differences with Sen. McCain, but it’s a spirited race. And I think it’s being conducted in a way that I think we will be able to unify after a nominee is chosen. So I’m not that concerned about the spirit of the race thus far.

PJV: You mentioned Obama’s support for the State of Israel. People are less familiar with Obama and are unsure of some of his positions. Can you contrast Clinton and Obama’s support for the State of Israel?

I think they’re both very solid supporters of American-Israeli relations. With respect to Sen. Obama, he was the prime sponsor of the leading Senate legislation to isolate Iran economically and to require divestment from companies that do business with Iran’s energy sector. He’s very strong on warning Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He was a 110 percent supporter of Israel during last year’s war with Hezbollah. He just recently wrote to the American ambassador to the United Nations demanding that the United Nations not criticize Israel’s responses in Gaza to the rocket attacks that are perpetrated by Hamas and the Palestinian government in Gaza on Sederot and other Israeli cities.

He has been a stalwart supporter of Israel’s right of self-defense as well as demanding that Hamas meet the three conditions that the quartet has laid out in terms of Hamas’ recognizing Israel’s right to exist, Hamas denouncing violence and Hamas accepting the previous agreements.

Time and again, Sen. Obama has pressed for the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel and he’s done that in places where the Jewish community is strong – in Florida, in Philadelphia and the like – but also he’s done it in Iowa and other places where there are much smaller Jewish communities. And the Jewish community in Chicago is very supportive of Sen. Obama.

I would not be as supportive and engaged as I am with Sen. Obama if he were not an “A+” on Israel, because to me and my constituents that is an extremely critical issue.

PJV: The Iran bill that you mentioned – will that close the loophole which allows companies like Halliburton to continue to do business in Iran, thanks to their offshore office in the Cayman Islands?

It would, yes.

PJV: Also on Israel, since Congress mandated moving the U.S embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Presidents Clinton and Bush have made use of a national security waiver to keep the embassy in place. Do you think this is appropriate, or should Congress take additional action?

You mean is it appropriate for the President to exercise the waiver?

PJV: Or are they using the waiver appropriately?

As far as I know, the President is using the waiver appropriately, given the ways that he’s used it. Do I think the United States should have its embassy in Jerusalem? Yes, I do. And, while there may have been a time where it was wise for the United States not to press this issue, I think that time has long passed. Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel. Successive Israeli governments have been willing to engage in the peace process and support a two-state solution, and it is too often the Palestinians who have resorted to violence and have not done their part to help create a state for themselves. There is still stubbornness in not recognizing Israel as a Jewish state and injecting the right of return – all this for me adds up to the fact that we should have our embassy in Jerusalem.

So that’s where my position is.

PJV: What is the difference between Clinton and Obama's approach to the war in Iraq?

Sen. Obama has been an opponent of the war from the start. And I believe he offers us the most likely scenario for withdrawing our troops responsibly from Iraq. I take Sen. Clinton at her word in terms of where she stands, but Sen. Obama has been against the war. His desire and determination to remove us from this debacle, I think, is absolute, and I think he’ll do it in a responsible way, and I’m very confident he’ll do that.

PJV: So should the United States maintain some sort of residual force in Iraq or in the area?

I think we should protect our interests fully, and that requires having a residual force in the area, but I don’t think we should have permanent bases in Iraq. Certainly, we have to protect our embassy and our personnel there, but no, I don’t think we should be keeping combat units in Iraq.

PJV: Who would you say are Sen. Obama's key advisors on the Middle East and, in particular, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Well, I think it’s fair to say that I am. Congressman Steve Rothman in New Jersey provides a great deal of advice. A gentleman named Dan Shapiro who works for the campaign has a lot of expertise. A gentleman named Eric Lynn, who also has good knowledge. My understanding – I know that Dennis Ross has provided a great deal of insight. Those should be the people who have provided, I think, a strong sense of where the campaign stands, and where Sen. Obama stands on this issue.

PJV: You are one of a courageous minority who has co-sponsored the impeachment of Vice President Cheney. You even created a website .

Yes, I’ve not sponsored the impeachment itself, what I’ve called for is impeachment hearings.

PJV: Do you think these hearings will show any progress?

Well, I believe very strongly that the Democratic Congress needs to hold the Bush/Cheney administration accountable for what appears to be very serious violations of the Constitution. And I think we are doing the nation a disservice by not having hearings.

PJV: So what do you think it will take to push the Judiciary Committee to hold those hearings?

I have sent letters signed by a number of my colleagues to the appropriate leadership people, and I think there is a growing effort and awareness among a wide spectrum of Americans from all 50 states that are petitioning their government, their Congress, for these types of hearings. But it’s an uphill battle. I’m not naïve.

But I think we have an obligation to investigate in an impeachment environment, in an impeachment hearing, where we would have the most serious, most sober and fairest way of getting out the facts.

PJV: In many of the investigations that Congress has done to date, key members of the administration have ignored Congressional subpoenas. How about getting the House to vote on those who have ignored these subpoenas and hold them in contempt?

That’s an excellent question. I have been a part of an effort that includes Chairman [John] Conyers of the Judiciary Committee to try to persuade Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi that we in fact do hold [White House Chief of Staff] Joshua Bolton and [former White House Counsel] Harriet Miers in contempt because they have refused to appear before the House. I believe this is the first time in American history where cabinet-level, important people have refused to appear before Congress. Certainly, people have come to Congress and refused to answer certain questions that were asked, but this is the first time that a President has instructed his cabinet-level officials to simply refuse to come to Congress. I think we need to take the President and this administration head-on on this question.

Just this last week I asked the new Attorney General [Michael Mukasey] whether or not he would enforce those contempt citations, and he said blanketly that he would not. So now we have an administration that not only refuses to appear before Congress, but an administration, then, that refuses to enforce a Congressional subpoena. They are in essence articulating a Constitutional view that would in my view, or in my opinion, dismantle the checks and balances system that the founders created when they designed our government. This is extremely serious and I don’t believe we can just turn a blind eye to this.

PJV: Still on the matter of Constitutional checks and balances, should there be any limits on the President's ability to use his pardon power to insulate his administration from investigation?

Well, certainly he commuted Scooter Libby’s sentence, which I vehemently disagreed with because I thought the President was intellectually dishonest. He said that he thought Scooter Libby’s sentence was excessive, and then he cut it to zero. The President had the authority , and still does, to commute any sentence under whatever terms the President wishes. And he thought Scooter Libby’s sentence was excessive – I think he got 30 months – then he could have made it 22 months, or 19 months or whatever number of months the President thought appropriate, but he made it zero months, which I think, for any objective party indicates that he wasn’t serious about the excessiveness of the sentence. What he wished to do was protect Scooter Libby from any kind of prosecutorial penalty.

And the real question is, “Why did the President do it?” I think the answer is to insulate both himself, Vice President Cheney, Karl Rove and other important members of the administration. And that in and of itself, according to the founders of this country, in their original Constitutional document, is a grounds for impeachment. A President is using the pardon, or commutation powers, for the purpose of covering up a crime committed by him or by a chief member of his administration – that is an abuse of his Constitutional authority.

So, while yes, the President does have the power to pardon and commute, I think it appears this President it appears likely abused that power and that’s why I think we ought to have hearings regarding the Vice President and the administration.

PJV: You are up for reelection this fall, of course. You have described this campaign as your "most difficult re-election campaign ever." How is your campaign going now?

Well, I appreciate the question. It is a challenge, and I take it seriously. The gentleman running against me is a man of some personal means and he’s shown that he’s willing to use it. He is currently running television advertisements that are critical of me, both on network television and cable TV. So, I’m very confident that I will do very well, but by the same token I’m also taking it in a very serious fashion.

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