Transcript: Press briefing Q&A with Democratic lawmakers on Obama’s 2013 budget

 

Transcript of press briefing Q&A with Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) on President Obama’s 2013 federal budget (Feb. 13, 2012):

Question:

“Sen. [Kent] Conrad, why wouldn’t you use reconciliation in the budget this year to try to help get some of these things through? That’s the main reason why budgets are useful.

“And for Rep. [Chris] Van Hollen, could you comment on the House leadership’s back-up plan they announced to pass the payroll tax that’s unpaid for?”


Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.):
“Well, with respect to the House leadership’s plan, I haven’t seen the full statement but I saw some of their comments. First of all, we should let this conference committee work its will and we should focus on the priority. The priority is extending the payroll tax cut for 160 million Americans, extending unemployment insurance for 10 months for millions of Americans who are out of work through no fault of their own, and making sure that seniors on Medicare have doctors who will participate in the program. We should be able to get that done.

“So I would hope that the House Republican leadership, instead of issuing threats, would make sure that the conference committee moves forward to get the job done for the American people. Because frankly, we saw what happened the last time the House Republican leadership decided to go at it alone. Their proposal crashed and burned. And it put 160 million American taxpayers at risk. So I hope that they don’t want to repeat the same kind of story we saw last December where they allowed time to almost totally run out on 160 million taxpayers.”

Question:
“Do you mean that you would vote against a straight payroll tax cut extension if that comes to the floor later this week? And would you expect other Democrats to vote against it?”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.):
“I support a straight payroll tax cut extension.”

Question:
“Do you think there would be widespread Democratic support for that?”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.):
“I believe there would be. In fact, we’ll have to see exactly what our Republican colleagues are saying. We’ve been making the point that when it comes to tax cuts for folks at the very top, the House Republicans went to great lengths to change their rules to say you don’t have to pay for those. And yet they’ve been saying that when it comes to a short-term 10-month payroll tax cut for middle-income people all of a sudden you have to pay for it. So we’ve been making the argument that we should move forward on this temporary payroll tax cut and our Republican colleagues have instead proposed lots of offsets – for example increasing Medicare premiums – that was in their package and that sort of things. So I hope we can get it done. We’re in.”

Question:
“As a follow up to that, there are those who worry that if you separated out the payroll tax cut from a larger package that it could jeopardize passage of unemployment benefits or the doc fix?”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.):
“Well, let me be clear. And I haven’t seen what the Republican proposal is. We should move forward on the three pieces together. If what they’re saying is with respect to the payroll tax cut, they’re no longer demanding that it be offset with things like premium increases for seniors on Medicare and that kind of thing, then that may be a positive development. It’s still important that the three pieces travel together but if – again I haven’t seen their exact proposal – but if they’ve changed their position with respect to offsetting the payroll tax cut to the way they have proposed, then that would be a positive development. And again I say that with the qualification I haven’t really heard their proposal spelled out.”

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.):
“He didn’t get a chance to get his question answered. You may well want to use reconciliation. I’ve certainly not rule that out.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.):
“Just a point on that. Just to put it in context. I mean, we’ve seen this effort before in trying to get a balanced approach. If you’re going to use reconciliation, you would hope then that the Republicans are prepared to finally to take a balanced approach to deficit reduction. After all the President was talking this morning with Speaker [John] Boehner. Speaker Boehner couldn’t get his caucus to go along with the balanced approach because it required asking folks at the very top to pay more revenue. In the Biden negotiations, when it came time to close corporate tax loopholes, you saw the Republican majority leader walk away from the table. This has been a continuing issue. And reconciliation is important. It is a solution to the extent people are willing to really solve these problems and that means dealing with it in a balanced way.”

Question:
Sen. Conrad, you defend this as a responsible way to address this second problem that you mentioned – the long-term problem. But you, I think, want deeper cuts in the out years. So do those go together if you’re looking at making deeper cuts over the long-term?


Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.):
“Well, I’ve not put forward a budget yet. So you know we will have chance to talk about that at a later point. I have obviously been part of two other efforts – Fiscal Commission and the Group of 6 – and it’s very interesting to look at what the President’s proposed because clearly he had borrowed heavily from what the Fiscal Commission proposed.

“The Fiscal Commission proposed about $400 billion of savings in the health care accounts over 10 years. The President’s is very close to that – $365 billion.

“The Fiscal Commission proposed a tax reform not through raising tax rates but by broadening the tax base to both improve the efficiency of the economy but to also reduce the deficit. And the President has a revenue – a total revenue – number that’s very close to what the Fiscal Commission proposed.

“Looking at the President’s budget, you’ll see he gets to a revenue level of 20.1% of GDP in the 10th year. That is actually a little short of the target that we had in the Fiscal Commission. So he’s not raising quite as much revenue as we thought was important in the Fiscal Commission, but nonetheless, he does move in that direction.

“So there are many places here where the President has borrowed heavily from the work of the Fiscal Commission, and I commend him for it.”

Question:
“Sen. Conrad, there’s a lot of talk of shared sacrifice and all that. You’re on the Budget Committee. You’re on the Ag[riculture] Committee. Agriculture is very important in North Dakota. What are North Dakota and all farmers around and rural residents – what can they look for out of this budget and out of the Farm Bill?”

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.):
“The President’s called for net savings over 10 years out of agriculture of $32 billion. That’s a little above where we were at the end of last year – the bipartisan agreement between the Republicans and Democrats on the Agriculture Committee in the Senate and the House. We agreed there to $23 billion of net savings. So the President is asking for somewhat more. You know, I prefer the number that we came up with last year but it’s in the ballpark.”

Question:
“Where are those savings going to come from?”

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.):
“Well, those savings are going to come from – I think virtually everyone has agreed – from a reduction in direct payments.

Question:
“For both of you guys. The White House today said they want to replace the sequester to $1.2 trillion with other things. A lot of Republicans in the House, like Congressman [Buck] McKeon, have also talked about that. Yet this sequester was agreed upon as the back-up mechanism in case the Super Committee failed last year. I guess my question is to what extent does the fact that both sides are now backing away from the sequester just give credence to the people’s – to the public’s – concerns that you guys are fiscally cowardly when it comes to the hard decisions?”

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.):
“Well, the President’s budget would more than replace the savings of the sequester. So the deficit savings are greater than you would get with the sequester. Number one.

“Number two, if you look at the terms of shared sacrifice, which this gentleman raised, the problem with the direction we’re going in is all of the savings come out of the discretionary spending and there’s nothing on the revenue side and there’s nothing on the entitlement side under the sequester. It’s all the savings on the discretionary that have already been cut, and we’re headed already, as Congressman Van Hollen indicated, to the lowest discretionary spending as a share of our national income in 60 years.”

Question:
“Then why go through the process in the first place?”

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.):
“Because the hope was that the Special Committee would come up with a better idea on both the revenue side and on reforming entitlements, and unfortunately, they did not. So we’re left with the sequester. The President is saying, ‘Yes, we should secure those savings. We should actually have greater savings. But we should do it in a more balanced way.’ Now, that’s an entirely rational response, I think.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.):
“Let me just…I agree with what the Senator said on that. Nothing to add.

“I just got a note saying that what the Speaker had proposed was moving only on the payroll tax cut piece. That would obviously leave millions of Americans who are out of work through no fault of their own hanging. It would leave millions of seniors who need to see their doctors as part of the Medicare program potentially in a lurch. That’s why these three things were dealt together the first time around and they should stay together on the next round. I’m glad that the Republicans are finally wanting to move the payroll tax cut without other extraneous provisions like blocking Clean Air regulations. Other than that, I think things should move together – travel together – the three of them.”

Question:
“So Congressman, can I just ask you what I asked you earlier? So you would not – you’re saying now you would vote against just a straight payroll tax cut?”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.):
“What I’m saying is it’s important, I think, to keep these three things together. Because I read the statement about something he may bring up later this week. I think the conference committee can work its will and I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to get to a solution. There had been discussions going on during the weekend.”

Question:
“Mr. Van Hollen, using that as a lead-in, what are the state of talks right now with the doc fix? I understand that some of the talks breaking down over the weekend were kind of pinned to length of time and offsets over the OCO. What can you tell us?”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.):
“Well, I don’t want to get into a lot of details other than to say that I think you know that the Democrats have proposed a permanent doc fix. We had proposed as part of that that we use the war savings. It’s not clear that the House Republicans colleagues will go along with that. I should point out that some of the Senate Republicans have been supportive of that idea, but House Republicans did not take kindly to it in the public meetings. So we’re looking at other alternatives. As you say, you can have anything from a one-year fix to a permanent fix.”

Question:
“About the war savings, a lot of people say this is not a legitimate offset. You know, this was money that wasn’t going to be spent anyway. How do you all respond to that?”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.):
“Look. Why don’t we just look at this year’s budget and what’s been happening? The reality is that the war savings budget – the budget – that’s been put aside for the war has been used for other things that may not be directly related to Afghanistan and Iraq, for example. And if you don’t cap that, if you don’t cap it, what you do is you create a slush fund that exists for years and years and years. And I think part of our hope is to make sure that the Defense Department, just like every other federal agency, is budgeting on a regular annual basis, and you don’t have a separate fund that’s created that can dramatically increase cost of the taxpayers. I think in reality it has been used in part as a sort of supplemental fund for things that may not be strictly related to the war, and by capping it, you make sure that we’re on a regular budget for the Defense Department.”

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.):
“One other thing that should be said here is the Republicans in the House had in their budget the use of these funds in total as offsets. In total. So now they come along and complain about capping them. It’s a little disingenuous, frankly. Beyond that, the fact is we are out of Iraq. We are winding down the effort in Afghanistan. That is going to create certain savings. And we ought to make certain that those savings go to an intended purpose and not become, as Congressman Van Hollen indicated, a slush fund to be used to spend money in other places never intended by the Congress of the United States.”

Question:
“Sen. Conrad. Back to agriculture again. You said direct payments could take a hit. Hear anything in rural development or other rural programs that you think are not going to be popular in rural America?”

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.):
“Look, we have to have savings from every part of the budget. I represent North Dakota. I’ve worked very hard on the last two Farm Bills. We’re working very hard on a new one. We can accommodate $23 billion of savings and still provide a sound safety net. When you go beyond that it becomes real challenging. The President has asked us to go further. The President has asked for spending reduction or savings in virtually every area of the budget and we understand that has to be done. Thank you.”

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One Comment on “Transcript: Press briefing Q&A with Democratic lawmakers on Obama’s 2013 budget

  1. Pingback: Transcript: Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad commends Obama's budget for responsibly reducing long-term deficit & strengthening economic growth | What The Folly?!

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