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House Cuts Face Hurdle In Senate


It's been a long week of budget debates. The president presented his 2012 budget. He has cuts, but he wants spending on innovation and education.

BARACK OBAMA: We're going to be making some key investments in places like education and science and technology, research and development, that the American people understand is required to win the future. So what we've done is we've taken a scalpel to the discretionary budget, rather than a machete.

WERTHEIMER: That got a mixed reception. In the wee small hours of this morning, the House passed the controversial $60 billion slash on the current budget, as the speaker promised they would.

JOHN BOEHNER: Read my lips: we're going to cut spending.

WERTHEIMER: But first, let's take a longer view. Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Budget at the New America Foundation, has been following all this closely, so I asked her thoughts on where we're headed.

MAYA M: And then, meanwhile, what you're seeing in the House is this movement for some very aggressive cuts on spending concentrated on a very short amount of time, the rest of the fiscal year.

WERTHEIMER: Seven months basically.

GUINEAS: Yeah. And so we're talking about big cuts compared to what we're used to doing in this very small area of the budget as well. It's just about 12 percent of the budget we're focused on when really the biggest parts of the problem are in the rest of the budget - mandatory spending or entitlements - that nobody's talking about.

WERTHEIMER: And that, it seems to me, that's the biggest deal, isn't it? That not even the very excited budget cutters in the House have got to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.

GUINEAS: That's the elephant in the room. I suppose that the reasons that some of these programs have been growing faster than other parts of the budget and faster than the economy is that they are politically popular.

WERTHEIMER: But politically popular would seriously understate it, I think.


GUINEAS: Likewise, the Republicans, who are allergic to taxes, if they wait too long, which seems to be everybody's favorite political strategy, the problem becomes so large that you end up dropping in a big new tax, like a VAT. So I look at this...

WERTHEIMER: Value-added tax, I should say - national sales tax.

GUINEAS: As an independent who sees both points of view, I keep thinking, if you both make the changes now, you don't risk the worst scenario that you're both worried about.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the president, in talking about what he - the kinds of things he would like to do, he has said it various times that if he comes out for something, if he says something should happen, that it immediately poisons the possibility that it can happen. That, I assume, means that what has to happen is that Republicans who are inclined to reach some sort of agreement and Democrats who are similarly inclined would have to have meetings that would have to be a secret, that would have to be closed. They would have to come out with an agreement.

GUINEAS: The president does at least have to set the environment where these discussions can take place and they can't be just behind closed doors, because the American public has to be involved as well at some point. But we also have to be straightforward and stop telling voters, hey, we can have tax cuts. We can have spending increases and start preparing expectations that the choices we're going to have to make, they're not easy. They're going to take real shared sacrifice in all parts of the budget.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think, looking at the president's budget, are these the budget cuts of a first-term president? Would we see these kinds of cuts if this were his second term?

GUINEAS: And so, I also tend to think that the whole notion of we can continue to kick this down past the next election never really works. What we have to do is make - addressing the fiscal problems politically a good thing. And, frankly, I think voters are way ahead of politicians here. I think voters would really appreciate some sort of direct talk about how we're going to fix this problem. So I think it could be turned into a political winner.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much.

GUINEAS: Thanks for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is part of a bipartisan group of senators considering ways the Congress might reach agreement on paring down deficits and debt into the future.

TOM COBURN: Our historical average interest rate is three times greater than what we're paying right now. And we've seen long-term interest rates starting to creep up in spite of what Chairman Bernanke is doing, in terms of pumping $600 billion into the bond market trying to raise the price of (unintelligible) the interest rates. So we've not gone near far enough.

WERTHEIMER: Senator, I think there's sort of general agreement that not enough has been done. But what there is not agreement on is what to do. And let me ask you about the big entitlements. Do you think that Congress is anywhere near contemplating addressing those portions of federal spending or is that just going to have to be left aside?

COBURN: And to me, if we don't rise up in the next year or two to address this issue, the members of Congress will have the biggest black mark you could imagine in the two or three years that follow, because the economic consequences for our country are going to be disastrous.

WERTHEIMER: So, what to do?

COBURN: Well, what to do is it's not hard, is we have to get the fraud out of Medicare, that's 60 to $80 billion a year. We need to drive down health care cost, and you're not going to do that with a centralized government operation on that. Everybody in the country is going to have to sacrifice, and that means the wealthiest and those experiencing the safety net. Everybody's going to get less.

WERTHEIMER: Dr. Coburn, you were a member of the president's bipartisan debt commission last year.

COBURN: I was.

WERTHEIMER: And your group did try to address the big entitlement programs, the elephants in the room. Are there some big ideas there that you think that Congress should be seriously considering in the current debate?

COBURN: Yeah. They should be considering the Ryan-Rivlin plan, which basically takes care of the poor. But as you come up on your income, if you're very high income, then your benefits decline in terms of Medicare and Social Security. It's a dual track system.

WERTHEIMER: Senator, I want to ask you something about - I just want to ask you to think back to when you were first elected. You're a fiscal conservative. You came to Washington convinced that debt and deficit could and should come down. You're a crusader on that issue. You must be remembering those days as you watched the House Republicans, the freshman Republicans in action. I'm wondering if you're thinking, you know, they're - do they understand what they're doing?

COBURN: So, hard choices are going to come. It's nothing we have in front of us, Linda, is unsolvable. But what we need is leadership to make sure Americans understand the degree and certainty and urgency of the problems in front of us, and they call for shared sacrifice at every level across this country.

WERTHEIMER: Senator, thank you very much.

COBURN: Linda, it's good to be with you.

WERTHEIMER: Senator Tom Coburn represents the state of Oklahoma. We reached him at home in Muskogee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.