ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
When Democratic Senator Kent Conrad announced his retirement, his seat in North Dakota was all but written off to the Republicans. Instead, on Tuesday, North Dakota voters chose Conrad's onetime protege at the State Tax Commissioner's Office, the state's former attorney general, Heidi Heitkamp, and she joins us now from her home. Welcome to the program.
SENATOR-ELECT HEIDI HEITKAMP: Thank you so much for having me.
SIEGEL: And since the fiscal cliff is already so much in the news, I'd like to ask you about it. Your campaign website said those who earn more than $1 million a year should help reduce the deficit, but you also wrote about reducing the corporate tax rates. Do you support people who make over a million dollars a year paying higher tax rates?
HEITKAMP: What we've been talking about over the course of the campaign is the need to look at a overall package for deficit reduction that includes not only revenue enhancements, including those on people making over a million dollars a year, but also looking very closely at budgets, looking very closely at getting people back to work.
SIEGEL: But as for increasing taxes, you've spoken of people who make a million dollars a year, the battle line here in Washington, and it was restated by President Obama today, is $250,000 a year. Do you think people who make that much should also pay more in taxes?
HEITKAMP: Well, I think what we need to take a look at is not, you know, income levels, but taking a look at the tax rates on the type of income that people earn. One of the things that I talked about consistently through the campaign is the fact that Paris Hilton pays a lower tax rate on her earnings, which are all trust fund earnings, than a Bobcat worker here who works, you know, maybe 50, 60 hours a week. And so we've got a big disparity between the tax rates on earned and unearned income that I think this country needs to look at.
SIEGEL: So perhaps increase the rates on interest, dividends, capital gains?
HEITKAMP: What I mean, I think you have to be a little careful when you look at it just to make sure that what you're doing is not hampering the economy in ways that you don't intend. But it certainly seems to me that obviously we enjoy a very nice lifestyle. My husband and I, we have a fair amount of unearned income. I think it's taxed too low for us.
SIEGEL: Your state is riding an oil drilling boom in North Dakota. Do you expect the Keystone pipeline to be approved shortly? And how important is that?
HEITKAMP: I always have. I mean, if you look at every statement that I've made during the campaign, I have said repeatedly that the delay on the Keystone pipeline had more to do with politics than it did the route. It certainly is helpful that the company now has rerouted around Nebraska.
SIEGEL: But did you not buy the argument that it was about Nebraska's objections to where the pipeline was supposed to go?
HEITKAMP: No. I never bought that argument. I think this argument is about opposition to tar sand oil development up in Canada, which to me shouldn't stop the pipeline.
SIEGEL: Well what about the argument, should we be increasing our reliance on fossil fuels at this stage of our national development even if the bulk of the environmental impact might be north of the border?
HEITKAMP: Well, I will tell you this. The way I look at this issue is increasing our energy independence in North America. We still import a fair amount of oil. I think anything that we can do to reduce those imports, grow our refinery capacity in this country adds to our national security and I think improves the quality of our economy. Now, with that said, I definitely think we need to be taking a look at a moderate kind of policy that also includes renewables. We need to get everybody together and include everything and quit putting politics in the energy policy.
SIEGEL: You know, we heard from out reporters in North Dakota throughout this campaign, said, Heidi Heitkamp is running very well way ahead of President Obama, obviously, in North Dakota. And part of it, as everyone says, she's just a really good, nice person. I just wonder if that's your interpretation of why you succeeded. Or if not, what do you think is the main reason that you are able to rescue a Democratic seat in the Senate?
HEITKAMP: I put it this way. Yes, you know, I hope people like me, but more important to me is that they knew me. I've been visible and active for a lot of years in North Dakota. And when the ads came saying Heidi Heitkamp is this person, because people know you - they don't always agree with you, and they may not always like you, but they know you - they go, well, I don't believe that. And so it made me a little immune to a lot of the, I think, very direct and negative attacks.
SIEGEL: I thought everyone in North Dakota knows everyone else in North Dakota.
HEITKAMP: It's one degree of separation. If we don't know someone, we both know someone we do know.
SIEGEL: Well, Senator-elect Heidi Heitkamp, congratulations on your election and thanks for talking with us today.
HEITKAMP: You bet. Thank you.
SIEGEL: That's Heidi Heitkamp, the Democratic senator-elect from the state of North Dakota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.