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UND, NDSU research bill fails in the House

Too early to judge Trump's performance, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp says

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., speaks with the Grand Forks Herald's editorial board. Sitting next to her is Abigail McDonough, her communications director. (Herald photo/Sam Easter)

Pressed to give Donald Trump a letter grade to rate his first 100 days, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., told the Herald editorial board on Friday morning that she'd give him an "I"—"Incomplete."

"It's too early to judge. I don't like that," Heitkamp said of grading the president's performance. "It's not something you can really judge at this point."

Heitkamp's remarks come in the midst of a fledgling presidency that has seen judicial setbacks on two proposed foreign travel bans and is mired in a health care debate, but has successfully begun rolling back numerous Washington regulations. Heitkamp voted last month to repeal an Obama-era regulation aimed at coal runoff pollution, arguing that the bill was a poor fit for North Dakota's geography.

"I think (Trump) has a lot of energy. I think that's a fair way to say it. He's a little like me. He's not a linear thinker," Heitkamp said. "The one thing I do believe is that he's myopically focused on helping working men and women in this country, and bringing back economic opportunities to people who get up every morning and go to work and don't necessarily put on a suit and tie."

Heitkamp also signaled some openness to Trump's Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, who testified before lawmakers this week. Heitkamp said in a Thursday statement that she is still reviewing his nomination.

Asked about Gorsuch on Friday, Heitkamp praised his familiarity with tribal sovereignty and public land issues, and pointed out his willingness to curb federal agencies' discretion interpreting the law. Despite some Democrats' indication that they might be willing to filibuster Gorsuch's confirmation, Heitkamp pointed out that a vote to end a filibuster and to confirm Gorsuch are two separate things. The political will among Democrats might not be strong enough to keep a filibuster in place, she said, even if it might be strong enough to keep support for Gorsuch to less than the necessary 60 votes.

Heitkamp's comments on Trump-backed health care policy were blunt. She linked the bill most strongly to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., but lamented the bill's potential effects on Medicaid funding.

"I know the states want flexibility, and I want that, and I support flexibility, but I think in many ways this is a Trojan horse to shift (Medicaid) costs from the federal government to the states," Heitkamp said, speaking in particular about the importance the program plays for North Dakota's elderly. With a vote in the House of Representatives still scheduled on Friday, Heitkamp questioned the wisdom of approving the law with a lack of research on its effects.

Heitkamp also offered brief remarks on her own agenda, pointing in particular to the Northern Border Security Review Act, legislation she sponsored that was passed last year to help strengthen border security between the U.S. and Canada, aimed in particular at human trafficking and drug trade. She also expressed concern for the state of "retirement security" and pressing to get more law enforcement onto reservations.

Near the end of her visit, Heitkamp remarked on her plans for the next election cycle. She hasn't made them, but she said she's undaunted by Trump's 63-percent victory in the state in November. She argued that North Dakota voters generally evaluate people and their platforms more than they care about partisan alignment.

"I haven't locked down what my plans are," Heitkamp said. "There's always considerations that go into this decision, and mostly it's personal. If I started out being afraid to take risk and chance politically, I wouldn't be sitting at this table here."

Sam Easter

Sam Easter is a City Government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-330-3441.

(701) 780-1108