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Arkansas delegates reflect on past year

2021’s path calls for compromise by Frank E. Lockwood | January 17, 2021 at 4:17 a.m.
Arkansas' congressional delegation is shown in these file photos. Top row, from left: U.S. Sens. John Boozman, and Tom Cotton and U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford. Bottom row, from left: U.S. Reps. French Hill, Bruce Westerman and Steve Womack.

WASHINGTON -- With Democrats in control of the House, Senate and the White House, members of the all-Republican Arkansas congressional delegation will have to work across the aisle in order to pass legislation this year.

The failure of Republican incumbents to hold on to either seat in Georgia's runoff elections this month prevented the party from retaining control of the U.S. Senate.

On Jan. 5, Democrat Raphael Warnock defeated Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, and Democrat Jon Ossoff beat incumbent Republican David Perdue.

Democratic President-elect Joe Biden had carried the state on Nov. 3 by 11,779 votes.

The Republican senators' "simple message" was "elect us and stop higher taxes and [stop] open borders and [stop] 'defund the police,'" U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said in an interview. "It was harder for Sens. Perdue and Loeffler to run on that message when so many people were still arguing about the results of the last election."

With President Donald Trump accusing Republican election officials of incompetence and Democratic election officials of fraud, with the White House alleging that the Nov. 3 election had been stolen and that the Georgia system was rigged, voter integrity became a major focus.

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In an interview, the lawmaker from Little Rock portrayed the losses as missed opportunities.

The state's junior senator had worked hard to bolster Perdue's and Loeffler's chances, repeatedly visiting Georgia and donating to their campaigns.

Cotton and Perdue had also joined forces to sponsor legislation overhauling the nation's immigration system. Now, Perdue is gone.

"I think we had a simple, straightforward and winning message, and we simply failed to break through in the end," he said.

"I'll give our rivals credit. They did a very good job of turning out their vote," he said.

The Republican defeat cost the party its U.S. Senate majority and denied U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., his chance to serve as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

The lawmaker from Rogers will instead serve as its ranking member.

In an interview before the Georgia runoffs, Boozman said he would work, when possible, with Biden and with Senate Democrats.

"It's been a very, very tumultuous year, but the good news is we're doing our best to move forward," he said. "My hope and dream would be that we start to come together. I think that we have the opportunity to do that working together. We desperately need to unite and accomplish some things that we need to get done."

While the two parties have fundamental disagreements on some issues, such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, Boozman said lawmakers should look for areas where agreement is possible, including infrastructure spending and child nutrition programs.

"I'm going to do my very best to find areas of common agreement, and I think we can do that on 90% of the issues, moving forward and working for the American people," he said.

Asked for 2020 highlights, delegation members pointed to last year's covid-19 relief legislation.

"We passed a couple of bills that, when you total them, went over $3 trillion, without a dissenting vote in the United States Senate, Democrats and Republicans working together," Boozman said. "It wasn't perfect, but it really did stabilize the economy and push the dollars out" to recipients who needed help, he said.

In January 2020, Cotton urged the Trump administration to halt commercial air travel between the U.S. and China and to launch "a Manhattan Project level effort to work with our best research scientists and laboratories to develop a vaccine as quickly as possible."

Ultimately, the Trump administration launched Operation Warp Speed, producing a highly effective vaccine in under a year.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, was a major achievement, Cotton said.

"The relief that we delivered to the American people, during a once-in-a-century pandemic, will go down as a big success," he said.

While not perfect, it provided much-needed help to families and small businesses in Arkansas, he said.

Unlike some of his colleagues, Cotton quickly grasped the significance of the new coronavirus and the threat it posed to global health.

"I was the first one to ring the alarm about the coronavirus in January and then worked for almost around the clock in February [and] March to help pass what became the CARES Act," he said.

That legislation, said U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., was one of Congress' best moments.

"When we were forced to do something for the good of the country, we did it," the lawmaker from Jonesboro said. "That went an awful long way to stave off what could have been an economic calamity. It's a shame that a crisis had to materialize before we see the two sides come together."

Presented with a challenge, lawmakers rose to the occasion, he said.

Covid-19 fears closed the U.S. Capitol in March. Ten months later, it remains off limits to the general public. House lawmakers are now able to vote by proxy without traveling to Washington. Much of the staff telecommutes.

These days, the Capitol complex is largely empty.

"I don't know that we will ever get back to what we perceived as normal prior to this pandemic," Crawford said

Asked to name last year's highlight, U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., said, "Probably getting a vaccine was the biggest success, so kudos to all of the government agencies that have worked on that and all the smart scientists and doctors who were able to come up with a vaccine. That was a pretty big achievement."

There were failures, too, Westerman said. Congress waited too long, for example, to pass its annual spending bills, and it unnecessarily delayed passage of additional covid-19 relief.

In an interview before the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, Westerman expressed concern about the nation's divisions and the elevation of opinion above facts.

"As members of Congress, we've got to have more dialogue and work on issues," he said. "I think as citizens, we've got to really search for the truth."

"There are people online and people in the media that, instead of presenting truth, they want to present something to play on your emotions of anger or fear, and they do a pretty good job at that," he said.

The blurring of fact and fiction on the internet and over the airwaves is a genuine problem, said U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark.

"People can get on there and freely say things that may not have a shred of truth to them. We're having difficulty right now getting to the truth," the former Rogers mayor said. "Particularly on cable news networks. They'll take certain themes, twist them and turn them to fit a certain ... political bias."

For members of Congress, it's "hard enough to do what we do today given all the challenges facing our country. It doesn't need to be made harder because we're having to debunk a lot of untruths out there, and that's what we spend a lot of time doing," he said.

Asked for his opinion on the biggest success of 2020, Womack, like Westerman, singled out Operation Warp Speed.

"By any yardstick, it is unprecedented and speaks well to the scientific community in our country. I don't know anything that could rival that," he said.

Asked when life will return to normal, Womack said, "the sooner, the better, but I don't see any real end in sight over the next several months."

"I think a lot of that answer is going to be dependent on the majority of Americans being willing to take the vaccine, and for the vaccine to achieve the efficacy rates that are being promoted by Pfizer and Moderna," he said.

U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., said Operation Warp Speed "will go down as a major public health and scientific accomplishment for decades to come."

On Capitol Hill, "I believe the biggest accomplishment of 2020 was Congress coming together to take legislative action to both fight the virus and help ameliorate the negative effects on the economy from the pandemic," the lawmaker from Little Rock said.

"I was very, very pleased with the delegation's collaboration, cooperation and tight working relationship with Gov. [Asa] Hutchinson to help facilitate that response in the state under Gov. Hutchinson's leadership," Hill added.

Hill also highlighted passage of the National Defense Authorization Act. It became law after Congress overrode Trump's veto.

The bill "will be remembered for completing President Trump's redirection and rebuild of the national security strategy after some of the missteps of the Obama administration," he said.

China, in recent years, has been moving "from a global partner to a significant economic, military and diplomatic rival to the Western democracies," Hill added.

Covid-19 will remain a major issue this year, Hill said.

"As the vaccine is more fully distributed and the pandemic subsides, Congress will be focused on getting the economy back up to prevent dynamic levels," he said. "I think we should be very cautious about large tax increases, or large increases in regulatory burden."

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