Sherrod Brown: Obama Made A 'Strong Case' For Minimum Wage Raise

Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio speaks to Robert Siegel about the president's proposals in Tuesday night's State of the Union.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Now, reaction to President Obama's State of the Union address last night from a prominent progressive Democrat. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio is very much of the liberal wing of his party and he joins us now from Capitol Hill.

Hi, welcome to the program once again.

SENATOR SHERROD BROWN: Yes, Robert, thank you. That would be the mainstream of the Democratic Party...

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: OK...

BROWN: ...which is the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, but thank you.

SIEGEL: You have been a champion and sponsor of raising the minimum wage. The president spoke in favor of that and promised to do what he can by executive order for federal contract employees. Was that speech sufficiently strong on issues of social and economic justice for you, or could you have stood some more?

BROWN: Oh, I could have stood some more but I think it was strong. I think the president made the case that minimum wage, it's - over the years, it's been generally done bipartisan and last time, 2007, with President Bush signing the bill. And the minimum wage - purchasing power of minimum wage has declined by a third since 1968. The president used a bit more recent statistic. But he also made the case that increasing the minimum wage helps the economy writ large, and that's the case we make. It's right for those families and it's right for our economy.

SIEGEL: On trade policy, President Obama said when 98 percent of our exporters are small businesses, new trade partnerships with Europe and the Asia-Pacific will help them create more jobs. And he spoke of a bipartisan trade promotion authority to protect American workers. But are you hearing from the White House a trade policy that's too pro-business for your liking?

BROWN: I'm hearing from the White House a trade policy that's shown itself to have failed. I think our trade policy has been anti-business. It's hurt small companies. It's hurt communities. It's curious about our trade policy. We've passed NAFTA. Congress passes PNTR with China passes CAFTA. Our trade deficit grows and our policymakers, unfortunately presidents in both parties say: Well, let's do more trade agreements - as if each time you do a trade agreement it doesn't make things worse.

This president, I give credit for good trade enforcement. We've grown jobs in places like Finley, in Cleveland, Ohio, and Youngstown, Ohio, because of the president and a bunch of us have fought for enforcing trade rules. But these new trade agreements - whether it's the Asia-Pacific, whether it's starting with fast-track - they don't serve our country well. And I think more and more Americans - the Congress is starting to catch up with the American people that these trade agreements really do undercut the middle-class and undercut American workers and small businesses.

SIEGEL: One other issue, on immigration, the president did not set out any red lines that would describe a bill as unacceptable, if it actually comes out of the House of Representatives. If an immigration bill does come out of the House that does not offer a path to citizenship, but rather a path to a legalized non-citizen status for workers who are undocumented, is that a nonstarter for you? Will Senate Democrats block such a bill?

BROWN: I don't know. I think we are all incur - I mean I want to a path to citizenship, for sure, as I think most Senate Democrats overwhelming number do. I also am encouraged by speaker Boehner saying he wants to move on immigration. As you know, in the legislative process, when the waters are roiled and you end up working through things, we can see a conference committee where I think path the citizenship could actually be a reality.

And the question ultimately is does John Boehner want to be speaker of the Tea Party or does he want to be speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and bring Democrats and Republicans together - together - and fight for an immigration policy that works for Americans. And ultimately I hope ends up with a path to citizenship.

SIEGEL: When I said you're of the progressive wing, the liberal wing, you said that is the mainstream wing of the Democratic Party. On issues like trade or like surveillance, are there sufficiently big fissures that we could see, you know, an important intra-party debated before 2016 before a presidential candidate is nominated by the Democrats?

BROWN: Yeah, I may have erred in that first statement when I said that I'm from the mainstream of the Democratic Party. I think I'm from the mainstream of the country when you look at what America wants to do on minimum wage, on extension of unemployment, on a more prudent foreign policy, on trade agreements that work for the middle-class and working-class. So I don't see major divisions in the Democratic Party.

I think Democrats are pretty much in the same place on all these issues from immigration to minimum wage to foreign policy. So I look forward in making that contrast between progressives, where most Democrats in the Senate and in the country are, and of far right policy that seems to have kind of captured the imagination and the day-to-day machinations of the Republican Party.

SIEGEL: Senator Brown, thanks for talking with us today.

BROWN: Always. Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio.

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