LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Senator Jeanne Shaheen is one of the members of the new 113th Congress. Shaheen is the senior senator from New Hampshire despite the fact that she's still in her first term. She was elected in 2008. Before that, she was New Hampshire's first woman governor. She remains the only woman to serve both as governor and senator, an accomplishment that seems to suit New Hampshire, which this week became the first state ever to send an entirely female delegation to Washington.
Senator Shaheen, welcome to the program.
SENATOR JEANNE SHAHEEN: Great to be with you.
WERTHEIMER: Now, when you first ran for the United States Senate, did you imagine that you would be part of such a bitterly divided, gridlocked institution?
SHAHEEN: No, and it's disappointing that it is so divided.
WERTHEIMER: Looking in from the outside, it looks like it can't be a very satisfying or even pleasant place to work, especially for a Democrat.
SHAHEEN: Well, I think the reality is while there are these partisan differences, the fact is individual senators work together very well. And, you know, now we have 20 women in the Senate, and I think the women have historically had a very good relationship in the Senate that has crossed those partisan divides. So I'm hoping that that will continue.
WERTHEIMER: Do you think that women have come anywhere close to some sort of critical mass, enough women there to make some kind of difference?
SHAHEEN: This year there will be eight women chairing committees in the Senate. I think that's critical. Now, obviously there are 20 of us, so we make up 20 percent of the Senate. Women make up over 50 percent of the population, so we still have a long way to go.
WERTHEIMER: You come to the Senate from being the governor of your state, which is an executive office. Governors have power. Governors can make things happen. Now you're one of 100. How does that feel?
SHAHEEN: Being governor and being in the Senate is sort of like apples and oranges. As governor, as you pointed out, you do have a very loud megaphone. You can better set an agenda and try and pursue that.
In the Senate, as one of the 100, you not only have to go by Senate rules, which I think are very arcane and there are some aspects of them that really need to be changed, like the filibuster. But also you are dealing with the seniority system, which is another issue in the Senate that makes it challenging.
WERTHEIMER: Now that the fiscal cliff has passed, the next big bump in the road is likely to be the debt ceiling. The president and Republican leaders are both already drawing the lines in the sand. I wonder, is there much that you as a first-term senator can personally do if Congress comes to yet another full stop?
SHAHEEN: Well, certainly one of the things I did a year and a half ago when we were having this debate was to try and make sure the people in New Hampshire understood what was at stake. It's astounding to me that people are willing to gamble with the full faith and credit of the United States. It's just unforgivable and irresponsible to think that people would be using this as a bargaining chip in trying to deal with this country's debt and deficits.
WERTHEIMER: But do you think when the president says he's not going to negotiate about the debt ceiling, that Congress is just simply going to have pass the debt ceiling and negotiate somewhere else, do you think he's going to be able to make that stick?
SHAHEEN: Well, I certainly hope so because I do think we need to be negotiating somewhere else. We saw what happened to the U.S. economy a year and a half ago when we passed the budget control act and when up to the brink and the credit rating of the country took a hit. There were significant costs to this country in the billions of dollars, and for those people who say they want to cut spending, that certainly doesn't seem to me to be a good way to do it. So I think we need to get serious about our debt and deficits but we need to do it in a way that puts aside this brinksmanship and looks at the issue in a serious way that recognizes that in order to deal with this we're all going to have to compromise.
WERTHEIMER: Let me ask you what you think about this business of New Hampshire having an all-girl delegation? How did that happen? Why did that happen do you think?
SHAHEEN: Well, we also have a woman governor. We have a woman speaker of the house and we have a chief justice of our supreme court who is also a woman, as is the chief justice of our superior court. This is our second woman governor. As you point out, we have an all-female delegation to Washington and I think it's about time.
WERTHEIMER: Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Senator, thank you.
SHAHEEN: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.