WASHINGTON–For Sen. Joseph Lieberman, last week started with a series of meetings and calls from anxious constituents–Connecticut mayors, community health providers, job training advocates. All expressed grave concern about the budget impasse in Washington and the deep cuts targeted for domestic programs.

This week will begin with Congress no closer to an agreement on how to fund the federal government for the rest of this fiscal year. House Republicans have proposed $61 billion in cuts, Senate Democrats countered with $10.5 billion. Both bills failed in the Senate last week, and lawmakers are now faced with trying to strike a balance between those two polarized points.

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Sen. Joseph Lieberman: ‘We have to have the guts’ to address entitlements

“People are really worried about what’s going to happen,” said Lieberman, a Connecticut independent.

Lieberman and other members of Connecticut’s delegation signaled they are willing to support deeper cuts than the $10.5 billion Senate Democrats have put on the table so far. But he and others were either iffy on specifics, or embraced ideas that were unlikely to gain bipartisan support. And they diverged significantly about how far to go in the broader debate over reining in deficit spending.

The day after the Senate voted down both the Democratic and Republican proposals, Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, and three other moderate Democrats huddled off the House floor with Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan fiscal group.

They were discussing ways to keep alive the sweeping spending cuts, tax increases and entitlement reforms proposed by President Obama’s bipartisan fiscal commission. Himes said that although they don’t necessarily agree with every element of the commission’s proposal, the group wants to figure out how to “talk about an overall deal, rather than some of the more limited discussions that we’re having now” over the fiscal year 2011 bill. A similar effort is underway in the Senate, where three Republicans and three Democrats have been quietly discussing a broad deficit reduction plan.

“We’re going to, when the timing is right and in the manner that is most likely to lead to success, to try to craft an analogous effort to what Warner and Chambliss are doing in the Senate,” Himes said, referring to Virginia Democrat Mark Warner and Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss.

He said the current debate over the 2011 fiscal year spending bill is not a productive way to move toward real deficit reduction, because the competing proposals focus exclusively on cuts to discretionary domestic spending.

Discretionary spending accounts for less than 15 percent of the federal budget. Entitlement programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, represent more than 40 percent of federal spending, but they’re a politically dicey subject. And no one is talking yet about changes to the tax code.

“We’re playing basketball on one-fifth of the court,” said Himes of the current battle.

Others in the delegation say they are similarly committed to deficit reduction, although they say entitlement programs should not be on the table.

“I am strongly in favor of reining in federal spending and reducing the debt and the deficit,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “But the cuts in spending need to be smart cuts.”

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Sen. Richard Blumenthal: ‘Dead set’ against cuts in entitlement programs

Asked what he would offer up in the short-term fight over 2011 spending, Blumenthal said Congress should target the estimated $1 trillion in waste and fraud in the Medicare program and end subsidies that benefit special interests, such as oil and gas companies.

But the first idea would, at least up front, probably require increased spending on Medicare investigators to ferret out the wasted spending. And the latter proposal isn’t likely to get a lot of support among Republicans, who control the House and hold 47 seats in the Senate.

Similarly, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, said she was eager to cut the deficit immediately.

“Let’s go for it,” she said. “Let me give you four pieces.”

Like Blumenthal, DeLauro cited the oil and gas industry subsidies, which cost an estimated $40 billion. She said Congress could also trim at least $8 billion in agriculture subsidies and another $8 billion in tax breaks for multinational corporations that send jobs overseas. And government health care programs could save $3 billion if Congress allowed generic drugs to win market approval more quickly than the major pharmaceutical giants would like.

Clocking in at $59 billion, DeLauro noted that she and other Democrats could come “more than halfway” to the GOP’s proposal of $61 billion.

But the current battle, of course, is as much about what to cut as it is about how deeply.

Republicans say they’ve come up with a balanced proposal that makes hard choices across the board. But Democrats say the GOP plan unfairly targets vital social programs, from Head Start to health care services for women.

“We’re living in a fantasy world down here where the only people being asked to sacrifice are poor women and seniors,” said Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District. “There’s no sense that the oil companies or the richest 1 percent should help us solve our deficit problem.”

Murphy, who last year called for a 1 percent cut in federal spending, said that lawmakers could easily achieve that by taking a hard look at defense spending, among other things.

Lieberman called the $10.5 billion proposal put together by Senate Democrats, an “opening offer.” Neither that bill nor the competing House GOP plan won enough support last week in the Senate. Lieberman said leaders now have to find that “sweet spot” that will get enough votes from each party to win passage. But he declined to offer a compromise number or suggest how lawmakers might get there.

And Lieberman, like Himes, said the real battle will not be over this bill.

“All of this reminds us that we’ve got to have the guts to do something about mandatory spending, which is the largest part of the budget and the largest part of the deficit,” said Lieberman, referring to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

If lawmakers continue to haggle over the small pot of discretionary spending, without addressing entitlement programs, “we’re going to decimate the rest of the government–education, health care, environment protection, all the rest,” Lieberman said. And those mayors and other advocates will become ever-more anxious.

Lieberman said he supported the effort by Warner and others to negotiate a broader approach, which he said will be vital if Congress is going to seriously respond to the public clamor for reducing the nation’s $14 trillion debt.

But others in the delegation said they would strongly oppose any effort to target cherished entitlement benefits.

“Social Security is not going broke. Social Security is not causing the deficit,” said DeLauro. “The deficit was caused by two wars, an extension of tax cuts to the richest people in the country, and a Medicare prescription drug benefit that was not paid for.”

Blumenthal similarly said he was “dead set” against cuts to Social Security benefits or other entitlement programs. Those programs should not, he said, be part of the current budget conversation.

Himes said he and his fellow House Democrats wanted to be cautious in moving forward, in part because he knew there would be fierce resistance on both sides of the aisle to major spending reforms.

The group he’s working with, about a dozen Democratic members of the “Spending Cuts and Deficit Reduction Working Group,” are relatively new to Congress and don’t have a lot of clout. “And we’re not nearly as sizable” as the new freshman class of House Republicans, Himes added.

“So our strategy here will be, through consensus building within our caucus and hopefully outside our caucus, to generate some momentum for what eventually is going to be the answer,” he said. “Whether we realize it two months from now or two years from now, a comprehensive approach along those lines is the answer.”

In the meantime, Congress is set to spend this week debating and voting on another short-term extension of the current spending law, giving them more time to find middle ground between $61 billion and $10.5 billion.

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