Retiring Michigan Sen. Carl Levin says he wants to spend his last two years in the Senate focusing on issues "that I believe to my core are really, really important to the country."
Although the Democrat says he "kind of" enjoys campaigning, he has decided not to seek another term in 2014 after 34 years in office. Levin says campaigns cost too much.
"Even in a state which leans Democratic — at least we think it will — still there's fundraising involved, and it's much more important that we, frankly, do our job here," he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.
One part of that job, as he sees it, is to fight the battle over increasing revenue as part of reducing the federal deficit.
"Are we going to continue to lose revenues to these gimmicks, these tax-avoidance schemes which corporations use basically to avoid paying taxes?" he says. "That's got to end, and there's a lot at stake here, and that's what I'm putting a lot of time in. And frankly ... this is one of the reasons that I have decided that I'm not going to spend the next two years campaigning; I'm going to spend the next two years fighting for things that I believe in, including ending these tax-avoidance schemes which are robbing our Treasury of the funds needed for these very important programs."
Levin says he wants to fight for programs like education, health care and infrastructure. And the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee wants to give the Defense Department more flexibility for making budget cuts than it got in the across-the-board cuts of sequestration.
"The thing which the Pentagon worries most about is readiness," Levin says. "Our troops that are going to be on a battlefield or in harm's way, they've got to have everything they need. You can't take the same 8 percent — or whatever the percentage is — cut of their support at the same time that you're cutting other things which might be less important."
Levin says he's not opposed to making cuts, just to the lack of flexibility. "There needs to be cuts in our budget in just about every place, providing we can prioritize those cuts, and the Pentagon's no exception," he says.
When it comes to flexibility, does announcing his retirement give Levin more political leeway in how he votes?
"I can't accept that assumption, because I would like to believe that I cast the votes that I think are the right votes, regardless of the political consequences," he says.
As NPR Political Junkie Ken Rudin reminds us: "Levin is the sixth senator to opt out of re-election for 2014, joining fellow Democrats Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.), Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), and Republicans Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) and Mike Johanns (Neb.)."
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Senator Carl Levin has been elected to the Senate six times. He decided not to try for seven. The Michigan Democrat says he'll leave office when his term expires in 2014.
INSKEEP: That will end a long career as one of his party's leading voices on the military, foreign policy and much more. The senator came on the line yesterday, though he said he is not ready to reminisce about his career. He argues that he decided not run again so that that he can spend the next year and a half working in the Senate instead of raising money.
SENATOR CARL LEVIN: These campaigns cost much too much. And even in a state which leans Democratic - at least we think it will - still, there's fundraising involved and it's much more important that we, frankly, do our job here.
INSKEEP: Does this grow at all out of your experience in past campaigns?
LEVIN: No, not really. I kind of enjoy campaigning. I don't enjoy fundraising. But it's really a matter of wanting to focus on some issues here that I believe are really important to the country. And one of them, of course, is the whole fiscal issue that we're involved in; the point where we simply must do some things - not just to reduce the deficit, but to fight for some programs like education and like health care and infrastructure that's been taking some cuts. And we've got to do some things that are important for our people in those areas and a bunch of others.
INSKEEP: Let's talk about the military budget specifically, Senator, because as many people will know, you've been chairman of the Armed Services Committee. You've been a leading voice for your party on military affairs. And we're in a situation where the Pentagon had agreed to budget cuts, and then the sequester - the automatic budget cuts - of recent weeks, will impose further restrictions on the Pentagon.
How serious is the situation in your view?
LEVIN: Well, the serious part is the inflexibility of it. The thing which the Pentagon worries most about is readiness. We've got to be - have our troops that are going to be on a battlefield or in harm's way, they've got to have everything they need. You can't take the same eight percent - or whatever the percentage is - cut of their support, at the same time that you're cutting other things which might be less important.
So hopefully, the budget which is coming up in the Appropriation Bill, which will be on the floor this week, will provide some needed flexibility for the Pentagon.
INSKEEP: Meaning that you're working on a bill that you think would reverse some aspects of the sequester?
LEVIN: Will reverse the rigidity of the sequester, not the dollar cuts.
INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about whether the size of the cuts themselves are bearable. I mean it's kind of a truism among some people, who are skeptical of large military spending, that if you impose cuts on the Pentagon that the Pentagon will just get creative, rather than spending money.
LEVIN: Well, there needs to be cuts in our budget in just about every place, providing we can prioritize those cuts, and the Pentagon is no exception. We can make some major reductions in the nuclear program. We are going to save some tens of billions of dollars as our troops come home from Afghanistan - that's a huge cost, by the way. And as we bring troops home, and hopefully faster, those reductions are going to be able to be there as well.
INSKEEP: When you talk through some of the priorities and concerns that you have, Senator - accepting a smaller military, going for a smaller nuclear force, trying to emphasize or at least preserve readiness for whatever conflict may come up, drawing down in Afghanistan. When you raise those priorities with Republican senators - set aside the House for a moment - do Republicans look at you and nod? Do they agree with that list of priorities?
LEVIN: Some do and some don't. Where I think we're going to try to have to find some common ground, and where the difficult area is not so much the military budget. It's the question of revenues and whether or not we are going to have additional revenues brought into this government. And I've been focusing a lot on that subject because whatever we talk about - whatever our investments are in terms of our domestic needs - the issue comes back to revenue.
Are we're going to continue to lose revenues to these gimmicks, these tax-avoidance schemes which corporations use, basically, to avoid paying taxes? That's got to end. And there's a lot at stake here and that's what I'm putting a lot of time in. And, frankly, this is one of the reasons that I have decided that I'm not going to spend the next two years campaigning.
I'm going to spend the next two years fighting for things that I believe in, including ending these tax-avoidance schemes which are robbing our Treasury of the funds needed for these very important programs.
INSKEEP: Does not running again free you to make votes that might have been political difficult otherwise?
LEVIN: Well, I like to believe I make those votes anyway. So I don't want to...
LEVIN: I can't accept that assumption, because I would like to believe that I cast the votes that I think are the right votes, regardless of the political consequences. And I'd rather operate in that belief and hopefully live it, than to agree with your implication that politics decides how I vote.
INSKEEP: Senator Carl Levin of Michigan recently announced his retirement at the end of this term.
Senator, thanks very much.
LEVIN: Great being with you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.