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Government, Politics & Issues

Obama, McCaskill discussed budget issues - but sequester seems likely to stay

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 5, 2013 - WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, one of the moderates whom President Barack Obama called last week to discuss budget issues, said Tuesday that the $85 billion in sequester cuts is likely to stay but might be re-targeted.

“I think it’s doubtful that we will change the $85 billion in cuts,” McCaskill told reporters. “I still think it’s possible that we will change the impact of those cuts so ... it makes more sense where and how we are cutting.”

Saying she had a long talk with Obama about “a way forward on all of the budget issues,” McCaskill defended the president’s handling of budget talks. She said the impact of the sequester cuts – which Republicans have accused the administration of exaggerating – was likely to be “most acute in August and September,” as the fiscal year ends.

But U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., lambasted Obama on Tuesday for failing to lead on budget issues. “This is a problem that a leader needs to manage. We’d like to give … the president more capacity to do that. He doesn’t appear to want that capacity,” Blunt told reporters after a Senate GOP leadership meeting.

“A lot of the things [Obama] has been saying over the last couple of weeks are beginning to put big question marks in the minds of the American people as to what the reality of federal spending really is.”

While they differed on Obama’s approach, Blunt and McCaskill separately argued in favor of modifying the sequester reduction in a way that gives more flexibility to the Pentagon and other federal agencies to cut in the right places, rather than simply implementing inefficient across-the-board cutbacks.

“It’s hard to see how ham-handed these cuts are if you don’t understand the way that they’re going to be implemented,” McCaskill said. “There’s a lot of ways we can impact the way that sequestration is going to hit that would really make a difference.” She said she hoped “we can make some adjustments so that the pain is not as acute.”

Blunt said he is considering introducing legislation “that would require the [federal] agencies, if there are furloughs, to have the same kind of standards that they have on days when critical and crucial employees are supposed to show up.”

As examples, Blunt cited air traffic controllers, meat processing inspectors or “other things that those critical employees do.” Some GOP senators, he said, also are asking “federal employees to step forward with ideas on how we could save money so that they or their co-workers aren’t needlessly furloughed.”

On the bright side of the budget mess, McCaskill said she thinks a potential government showdown will be averted before March 27 – the day that the current continuing resolution (CR) expires – because Democrats and Republicans want to avoid further disruption.

“I do remain confident that we will figure out a way to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year, and then turn our attention to doing both a budget – which we will do in the next few weeks – and also the appropriations bills,” McCaskill said.

Blunt said the Republican-led House “is going to try this week to send a CR over that has the military-updated version of appropriations in it. And I hope the [Senate] appropriations committee does the same thing.”

Cutbacks need to be better targeted, Blunt said, because “many of our government agencies, because of no appropriations bills and continuing resolutions [in recent years], are working on priorities” that are now outdated.

McCaskill among moderates consulted by Obama

Last week, Obama said he would reach out to congressional moderates of both parties to discuss the best way for the nation to move forward on both long- and short-term budget issues. McCaskill revealed Tuesday that she was one of those moderates.

Obama “called last week and we had a fairly long conversation about a way forward,” McCaskill said in response to a question from the Beacon. While she declined to go into many details, McCaskill said the talk was “policy heavy, around a number of topics. The dominant topic was a way forward on all of the budget issues.”

Among the budget issues, McCaskill said she and Obama discussed “the glide path of lower spending in the short run, so we don’t get into the kind of economic morass that Europe is in because of the aggressive austerity program they implemented, which we avoided.”

They also discussed longer-term budget issues, including “the long-term consequences of not dealing with the demographic reality of the huge imbalance of what people are paying into the Medicare system and getting out of the Medicare system, and how many people are coming into the Medicare system on a daily basis.

“I think he feels very strongly, he wants to be responsible as it relates to the future. He doesn’t want to just tread water and leave this mess to the next president. And he knows he doesn’t have a lot of time. Because, before you know it, all everybody will be talking about around here is who the next president is going to be.”

While Blunt and other Republicans have criticized Obama for focusing too much on raising new revenue and too little on reforming entitlement programs, McCaskill said the president is willing to negotiate on some entitlement issues.

“The president – much to the consternation of some of the people that are on the far extremes of the Democratic Party – has put things on the table that the Republicans are not acknowledging,” she said.

Those possibilities include “more aggressive means testing in the Medicare program” as well as a “chained CPI” that would slow the increase in Social Security payments related to inflation. That issue is “a real hot button with many of the people in his party. So he already has stuck his chin out there, and laid out” some possible changes.

“I had one of my Republican colleagues tell me this morning that he has now looked at what the president has put out there, and he acknowledged to me: ‘It’s a good start’ on where we need to go,” McCaskill said.

“Hopefully, we can get enough people to come to the middle and do that compromise that will not so much deal with the level of spending this year, or next year or the following year, as it relates to our economic recovery. But, more important, looks at the long-term debt that this country has.

“We’ve got to make sure that our rising health-care costs and the demographics of this country don’t become the ‘purple ooze’ that eats every other part of the budget.

“That kind of work remains to be done. And that’s where I think the president thinks some of the moderate Democrats can really play a role. And I hope I can be one of those.”

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