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Heitkamp says Trump, who's 'a little like me,' would make her re-election easier

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., speaks with the Grand Forks Herald's editorial board on Friday, March 24. She also spoke to The Forum Editorial Board later in the day. Sitting next to her is Abigail McDonough, her communications director. Sam Easter / Forum News Service

FARGO — U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp delved into her political future, health care, BreatheND and Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch during wide-ranging conversations Friday with the editorial boards of The Forum and Grand Forks Herald.

Heitkamp, who's up for re-election in 2018, said she'll decide by this summer whether she'll run again. The 61-year-old North Dakota Democrat said the decision is one she'll make with her husband, taking into account what she called her "time bank."

"How many hours do you have left? And how do you want to spend that time?" she said.

Heitkamp said she's undaunted by President Donald Trump's 63 percent victory in the state in November. She argued that North Dakota voters generally evaluate people and their platforms more than they care about partisan alignment.

Heitkamp said Trump's win has, in a certain way, made her political life easier.

"I think that it would be harder if Hillary Clinton had won because then everything she did people would say it's your fault," Heitkamp said. "It means that I don't have to spend time defending somebody else's agenda. I can talk about what I want to get done."

Her remarks come amid a fledgling presidency that has seen judicial setbacks on two proposed foreign travel bans and is mired in a health care debate, but has successfully begun rolling back numerous federal regulations. Heitkamp voted last month to repeal an Obama-era regulation aimed at coal-runoff pollution, arguing that the bill was a poor fit for North Dakota's geography.

"I think (Trump) has a lot of energy. I think that's a fair way to say it. He's a little like me. He's not a linear thinker," Heitkamp said. "The one thing I do believe is that he's myopically focused on helping working men and women in this country, and bringing back economic opportunities to people who get up every morning and go to work and don't necessarily put on a suit and tie."

Heitkamp signaled some openness to Trump's Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, who testified before lawmakers this week. She said she's still reviewing his nomination. "I intend to give him an absolute fair reading without putting on some kind of partisan lens," she said.

Heitkamp praised Gorsuch's familiarity with tribal sovereignty and public land issues, and pointed out his willingness to curb federal agencies' discretion interpreting the law. Though, she said many have concerns about his views on so-called dark money in politics. "I think if you look at, you know, why we've become so polarized politically, I think money has been a big, big problem," she said.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has asked other Democrats to join him in filibustering an up-or-down vote on Gorsuch. Heitkamp said Thursday via Twitter that Gorsuch should get such a vote.

The political will among Democrats might not be strong enough to keep a filibuster in place, she said, even if it might be strong enough to keep support for Gorsuch to less than the necessary 60 votes.

Heitkamp's comments on Trump-backed health care policy were blunt, lamenting the bill's potential effects on Medicaid funding.

"I know the states want flexibility, and I want that, and I support flexibility, but I think in many ways this is a Trojan horse to shift (Medicaid) costs from the federal government to the states," she said, speaking in particular about the program's importance for North Dakota's elderly. Heitkamp questioned the wisdom of approving the law with a lack of research on its effects.

"I get frustrated because we aren't talking really about health care," she said. "We aren't talking about wellness management at the front end of our life."

From this point, Heitkamp segued to the elimination of BreatheND, North Dakota's tobacco prevention and control agency. Gov. Doug Burgum signed a bill this week that moves the agency's funding, which the state receives because of Heitkamp's involvement in the 1998 settlement between states and tobacco firms, to the North Dakota Health Department.

She described the move as "penny wise and pound foolish." "I hope North Dakota isn't making a mistake that in five years we see the rate of youth smoking up, you now, 15 to 20 percent."

She also believes an argument could be made that the Legislature cannot legally reallocate the money. "Was that money supposed to go for tobacco prevention? The answer is yes," she said.