Sen. Bob Casey is seeking a second term in the U.S. Senate and is facing Tom Smith, a entrepreneur in the coal industry from Western Pennsylvania. Casey is a socially conservative Democrat who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, where he has pressed for sanctions against Iran. For much of the past year, the race has been fairly quiet, but recent polls suggest that Smith is closing the gap on what had been a double-digit Casey lead, and both candidates have taken to the airwaves. Casey, the state’s senior senator, spoke with the Jewish Exponent last week. Smith’s campaign has promised to make him available for a similar interview. The following is an edited version of the conversation with Casey.
You’ve been a leading advocate for sanctions against Iran and have expressed support for the passage of additional measures. Is there still time left for sanctions to work?
When we say that all options are on the table, that means every option, including one that is military. I think at the same time, we should make sure that we fully exhaust all the other options, and one of them is sanctions. It’s not unlimited, and I don’t think there should be an indefinite time frame, but there are still some opportunities here to create some additional pressure.
There’s been a lot of talk about a military option, but how likely is it that the United States would go to war with Iran?
I don’t want to speculate and it’s hard to make a definitive assessment. My sense, having looked at this pretty carefully, is that our military is prepared, at any moment, to take action if we need to. It doesn’t mean we will. I think we’ve got more work to do on sanctions and the kind of diplomatic pressure that comes with an international consensus, which frankly didn’t exist a couple of years ago.
Where is your red line?
You could debate terminology on one side or the other. I thought the resolution that we passed in the Senate, resolution 41 [of which Casey was one of three co-sponsors] was about as strong an articulation of what we are seeking to do, which is to say that containment is not the policy, containment is not good enough. Some might describe that as kind of an American red line.
Gov. Romney has said that “Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in peace.” You have met with Palestinian officials, do you agree?
The goal here ought to be a two-state solution. We can’t just hope for that. We should be continually pressing. I think that when our government gets off track is when we don’t articulate and emphasize over and over again that Palestinians have to get to the table. You have to do negotiating at the table, not set up preconditions and not play the games that have been played the last couple of years.
Your opponent said you have failed to stand up to President Barack Obama when he pushed Israel to make concessions.
I think that my opponent and his campaign should start to do a little reading of the record. We’ll see what voters say on Election Day. When voters are voting and these issues are a substantial factor in their vote, I think I’ll do quite well.
You recently opposed cutting aid to Egypt, Pakistan and Libya. Are there any kinds of conditions we should be setting?
I think too often in Washington, the debate comes down to a binary choice, either A or B — A, meaning provide aid to countries and don’t ask any questions. That’s not acceptable. But the other choice is to cut off all aid. In most instances, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, because it is frankly dangerous to our national security. So what do you do?
Well, what you do is what we have been doing — and frankly what we could do more of — which is to provide a mechanism where aid can be conditioned or questioned or scrutinized or sometimes cut off partially, but not wholly or completely.
It’s making sure that, when you have a change in leadership and a change in power in Egypt, we ask some basic questions about what they are doing. Are they going to act like they should as a country, where they respect minority rights and religious freedom and tolerance? If the answer to one of those or many of those is “no,” then that should cause us to consider changing the relationship, which has been a strong relationship and a relationship that has been supported by a lot of American tax dollars.
You’ve long been known as a something of a maverick in the Democratic Party when it comes to your views on social issues. You’re pro-life, you support civil unions but oppose gay marriage, and are an advocate for the Second Amendment and have opposed renewing the automatic weapons ban. Since you have been elected, have you rethought or changed any of your positions?
I have pretty much the same positions that I had as a state official. Most people expect you, when you are representing them, to focus on the main issues that they are confronting every day — and most of those have been economic. People send you [to Washington] to work on those issues and not to get too caught up in an ideological debate.
What can we do to ensure the long-term survival of Medicare?
Well, I would hope that we wouldn’t go in the direction that it seems some of our Republican friends want to go. My opponent has come out in favor of proposals that would take away the guaranteed benefit. It is a really bad idea. There is about $75 billion of health care fraud. Even if you can [eliminate] part of it, you can get a lot of savings. We could do things to make sure that we are keeping people healthier, so we can make sure that they don’t have the acuity levels, the challenges, that lead to a greater induction of health care dollars.
Do you see you and your colleagues focusing on major climate change legislation or immigration reform?
The main thing is that, in the near term, the focus we have to bear is on keeping the economy moving and growing — that is job No. 1. Those issues that are economic or job-related or fiscal in nature will take precedence over everything, absent national security.
What do you make of the fact that your race seems to have tightened dramatically?
I always knew it would tighten. I don’t know why so-called experts in Washington didn’t know that to begin with. Some have claimed to know a lot about campaigns. Then, when a race tightens up, they seem mystified. It’s just Pennsylvania: We are a 52-48, 53-47 kind of state, with rare exceptions. It’s very hard in Pennsylvania to have a big win if you don’t vastly outspend your opponent. If I can manage to win by a few points, that would be a huge victory. We will probably be outspent two-to-one. Smith’s got personal money and it’s a free country, and he’s allowed to spend it.