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Area senators vote 'yes,' but still disagree

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 2, 2011 - WASHINGTON - Even though all four senators from Missouri and Illinois voted Tuesday for the debt-ceiling deal, sharp differences exist in their attitudes toward what the framework means and what the next steps will be.

"My vote for this legislation does not come without some pain," said a tired-looking U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who presided over the crucial Senate vote later that morning. "On this matter, my conscience is conflicted."

On one hand, Durbin said in his speech before the vote, the plan will avoid default and its consequences, including higher interest rates. But the Illinois senator also warned that the plan "will reduce spending on critical programs ... fewer children from poor families will be enrolled in early childhood education; working families and their children will face even more debt to pay for college education; medical research will likely be cut."

He said his troubled conscience in voting for the bill recalled a line from William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" that he struggled to understand: "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all." In this case, Durbin said, both the debt-ceiling plan and the alternative of default would have "consequences on innocent people across America."

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., was less dramatic and more upbeat in discussing his vote, and he took a different point of view of the plan's impact. "It changes the way Washington does business," he said. "I hope that, for the foreseeable future, it becomes the pattern that we look at every time we have to deal with the issue of debt. We need to ask ... why do we have this problem and what are we going to do to solve it."

Blunt thinks that the plan's new super committee -- technically, the congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction -- "creates a real opportunity to deal with some of the big issues that Washington has a hard time dealing with." He added: "The right time to deal with difficult problems is when you have divided government."

The Missouri Republican said that "no party is going to be entirely happy with this agreement. However, this legislation is the best we can do right now, and it begins the process of changing Washington's spending behavior. We need to use it as a first step to ensure that we continue to rein in federal spending and focus on policies that help spur private sector job creation."

Although she did not deliver a Senate speech Tuesday, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said in a statement that she voted yes because "it was unacceptable for the U.S. government to default on its debts. Some took an extreme position and said 'no,' but at the end of the day there were a lot of leaders that came together in this democracy and forged a compromise."

McCaskill added, "It's not a perfect package, but I'm proud that we were able to find compromise and avoid what would have been irreparable damage to our economy."

On Monday, McCaskill told St. Louis Public Radio that there were enough good aspects of the plan to warrant her support, even though "there are many things about this ... I don't particularly like." Overall, she said, "we got some things that are very important to working class people and to the middle class." At the same time, she said, "we are going to be able to make some real progress on our debt structure."

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said in a Senate speech that the compromise represented "the best deal that we can get. ... This bill prevents a crisis from breaking out this week. It also begins to control automatic spending programs, many of which have run without much accountability since the 1960s." Kirk called the changes "a down payment on further ways to bring common sense, accountability and control to the spending of our government."

Kirk and Durbin disagreed on the need for higher taxes as part of a budget deal. Kirk said Americans "tell us that they are not undertaxed. They tell us that Washington overspends." He argued that the way to pay government debts "is to generate more jobs, creating more taxpayers who will provide additional revenue -- not new federal, job-killing taxes."

But Durbin said more revenue needs to be part of the super committee's proposal for balanced deficit reduction that does not unfairly hurt underprivileged and middle-class Americans. "If we are going to be honest about reducing our debt, we have to be honest on how it will happen," Durbin said. Everyone agreed that spending needs to be reduced, he said, but we also "have to be prepared to raise revenue."

Durbin added that a "fair" deficit-reduction plan must tackle entitlement reform and find a way to raise revenue by asking Americans "who have profited so well in America" to pay higher taxes. "That is the stark reality."

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