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With a challenger aiming to unseat her looking on, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin defended her record in the Senate Thursday and said more should be done to shore up infrastructure funding, including a federal gas tax, which she said should be "on the table."

Baldwin's remarks came at a WisPolitics luncheon in Madison. State Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, who is running in the Republican primary to challenge Baldwin in the Senate election this fall, attended the luncheon and asked Baldwin why she voted against President Donald Trump's tax plan. 

Baldwin said she wanted the individual tax benefit to be permanent and said the bill benefits corporations over workers. 

“I think we should have made the individual tax cuts permanent ... why do they only get a temporary tax cut?" she said. "If we could have embraced the ideas that I was talking about in my tax alternatives, the Stronger Way Act, helping hard working families, those who are working and hardly getting by ... those are ways to really respect the dignity of work and understand how hard our Wisconsin families are struggling."

“I don’t begrudge anybody the return they’re going to get," Baldwin said of the increased tax return dollars many will see this year. "I just wish it were permanent. I wish it weren’t so skewed.”

Baldwin also answered questions on changes to gun laws in the wake of the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida on February 14, what should be done to fix the Affordable Care Act, and challenges in funding transportation improvements in Wisconsin. 

On gun regulations: Baldwin said school shootings have happened "far too often" and said she is among of the 97 percent of gun owners who support universal background checks before one can purchase a gun. She applauded the high school student survivors of the attack, who are rallying for gun laws to be tightened. 

"I think these young people are profoundly influential in bringing us to this moment now," she said. "We need to continue."

She said she supports Trump's tweets Thursday in which he said he will be "strongly pushing Comprehensive Background Checks with an emphasis on Mental Health. Raise age to 21 and end sale of Bump Stocks!"

"If he is sincere about these three measures ... he needs to talk to the people who put the agenda of the Senate and the House together," Baldwin said. 

On the Affordable Care Act: Baldwin acknowledged its healthcare exchange marketplace was struggling and said more needs to be done to decrease costs. 

"It's been neglected. It was a big undertaking and it needed to be nurtured ... after years not being able to work constructively in Congress, it does need fixing. Healthcare is still too expensive."

On NAFTA: The manufacturing related parts of the original trade deal do not serve Wisconsin, she said, echoing some of Trump's sentiments about its problems.

"My sense is that re-negotiations aren't going quickly or smoothly, but I do think they provide an incredible opportunity to correct a problem from the original round," she said. "

"NAFTA I think generally works pretty well for our agriculture economy. The U.S. trade rep ought to basically be saying 'first do no harm here.' I think the provisions of NAFTA didn't serve our manufacturing economy as well ... we gave away too much."

On Wisconsin's place in Trump's infrastructure plan: Baldwin emphasized that in order to get federal funding, states will have to bring their own money to the table. Wisconsin hasn't been able to do that, she said. 

"Ask the state of Wisconsin how easy it is to come up with money for transportation. Isn’t that what held up the budget?" she said. The money is "not here. It's not in Wisconsin."

After the event, Vukmir said she showed up to hear Baldwin's explanation on several issues. Vukmir will take on Marine Corps veteran Kevin Nicholson in the Republican Senate primary election in August. 

"I happen to be here in Madison today and I’m a constituent and I was curious to hear her answer to that (tax) question," she said.  "I wanted to hear about Tomah. I wanted to hear about single-payer and just as I travel the state, it gives me an opportunity to get back to her constituents to tell them that I actually see Tammy in the state because most people feel that she hasn’t been in the state. So I can say there’s been a sighting of Tammy Baldwin and I was there to prove it."


Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.