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Republican U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte on Guns, Climate Change, and SCOTUS

Allegra Boverman for NHPR

Read All About It:  Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte recently joined NHPR's Laura Knoy and Josh Rogers for an hour-long discussion -- part of our Conversations with the Candidates series.

Bye Partisanship?

Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte has been burnishing her bipartisan credentials on the campaign trail, emphasizing her willingness to cross party lines and stand up to her own party.

That may come in handy during an election season when embracing the GOP Presidential nominee has been problematic for some top Republicans, Ayotte among them.  After months of saying she was supporting -- not endorsing  -- Trump, Ayotte disavowed him soon after his comments about sexually assaulting women became public.  Her Democratic opponent, Governor Maggie Hassan, has continued  to try to tie Ayotte to Trump. 

Ayotte insisted during The Exchange’s Conversations with the Candidates interview this week that the bipartisan mantra is not newfound or strategic, as her critics have maintained, but well established – pointing to her record as state Attorney General, and the fact that she was twice appointed to the position by a Democratic Governor. 

Universal Background Checks and Gun Control

On guns, Ayotte has taken some heat from her own party for supporting the “No Fly No Buy” bill, which restricts guns sales to suspected terrorists on the federal no-fly list.

But she appeared to go substantially further when asked about universal background checks, which would expand background checks to private sales, considered anathema by many conservatives.

“I’m open to it. I want to make sure that whatever we do is a system that will work effectively in how it’s administered on a state level, with the NICS (National Instant Background Check System). I want to make sure it’s enforced, and I want to make sure that we do protect people’s Constitutional rights. One thing we don’t want is a registry type situation. I wouldn’t support that.”


Ayotte says immigration reform “cries out” for bipartisan work.

“I want to address this instead of staying in our political camps and really get this addressed for the security and prosperity of this nation,” she said.

Criminals should be sent home, she said, and security is a major concern.  As for the rest  -- the millions here illegally:  “I don’t see enough buses to bring everyone back,” she said. “If you are willing to work, be part of this country, learn English, pay a fine, taxes, you get in the back of the line, not in front of anyone who’s waiting diligently.”

FBI Director James Comey

We asked Ayotte about  FBI director James Comey’s  decision to inform Congress that the FBI had renewed its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s handling of emails while Secretary of State.

Ayotte said Comey’s announcement came as a surprise but suggested that he is simply doing his job.

“When new information comes forward, as an investigative official, you can’t ignore it. So in his position, were he to ignore it, that would be as problematic as to where we are now…. So I don’t see a choice of looking at it at this point because otherwise you’d be ignoring something that could be important. ”

Changing on Climate Change

When Ayotte first ran for Senate in 2010, during a primary debate, she was doubtful about the link between human activity and climate change. She now acknowledges that link, after “studying the issue very carefully.”  When it comes to dealing with emissions, she said she’s against a carbon tax but would like to see more federal dollars devoted to coming up with  clean-energy solutions.

Fixing the Affordable Care Act

Ayotte has voted with her party to repeal and replace Obamacare but now talks about fixing it, but keeping the preexisting condition provision, as well as Medicaid expansion coverage. 

“No matter what happens in this election, I think we’re going to have mixed government and so that means that we’re going to have to be in a position where we actually look at these issues, take up some very needed changes. And I hope it goes in the direction of more competition, more choice, and really looking at how we drive down costs because I don’t see this as sustainable as it is.”

Not all Supreme Court Vacancies Created Equal?

Ayotte has not faltered on joining GOP opposition to considering President Obama’s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, although she was one of a handful of Republicans who met with Garland.

“Heading into this election, with the balance of the court at stake,” she said, “The people of this country should weigh in in terms of who will nominate the next justice.”

But Ayotte said she opposes Senator Ted Cruz’s recent suggestion that the Senate could indefinitely block a Democratic president from filling the vacant seat. 

“Obviously I will carefully vet whoever is proposed and make sure… not only that they qualify, but I’ll want to understand their constitutionally philosophy, but I would not support the proposal to permanently block filling that court.”

National Security: North Korea and Russia

Ayotte has been an outspoken opponent of the Iran deal.  We asked her about the North Korea nuclear threat.  “I would like the administration to push China harder to pressure North Korea in terms of its behavior on its nuclear program and its missile program.”

She faulted the Obama Administration for its handling of Russia.

“It’s really important that America lead on this issue,” she said. “You’ve seen Russia continually push -- whether its violations of what’s called the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) treaty in terms of dealing with its nuclear program, in terms of its invasion of Ukraine. In each of those instances, we have not responded aggressively in my view.”

Ayotte also called for greater NATO involvement. “I think we should call on NATO more in terms of addressing what has been very bad aggressive behavior by Russia.”

Who gets credit for the economic rebound?

Recently, the U.S. Census Bureau reported the largest drop in the poverty rate and the largest increase in median income in decades.   We asked Senator Ayotte whether President Obama deserved any credit for that economic news.

“Well, I think that certainly we’re glad to see the most recent economic report but one challenge that we face is that we also have a very low labor participation rate.  So we have a number of people that have dropped out of the workforce. So the numbers are important and I’m glad to see them improve and certainly everyone working on this issue deserves some credit.”

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