Madam President, I rise to speak about the current status of the ongoing bipartisan budget talks. We are in a much better place than we were 2 weeks ago. The two sides are much closer than we might be able to tell from the public statements. After 3 months of back and forth, two short-term continuing resolutions containing cuts, and one near collapse of the talks last week, we are finally headed for the homestretch.
Last night, we had a very good meeting with the Vice President. Afterwards, he confirmed that the House Republicans and we in the Senate are, for the first time in these negotiations, working off the same number. As the Vice President said last night, there has been agreement to meet in the middle, around $33 billion in cuts. The Appropriations Committees on both sides are now rolling up their sleeves and getting to work to figure out how to best arrive at that number.
Today, Speaker Boehner said: Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to. That is a fair and reasonable position to take. He need not publicly confirm the $33 billion number. But as long as both sides keep their heads down and keep working, a deal is in sight. We are right on the doorstep.
But there are outside forces that do not like this turn of events. Outside the Capitol today, there was a tea party rally staged to pressure Republican leaders not to budge off H.R. 1. They want Speaker Boehner to abandon these talks and hold firm, even if that means a government shut down on April 8. This is a reckless, and, yes, extreme position to take.
Earlier today, the Republican leader came to the floor to defend the tea partiers rallying outside this building. Let me say this. I agree with some of his points. For instance, I agree that the fact that the tea party is so actively participating in our democracy is a good thing. They have strongly held views and they joined the debate. This is as American as it gets.
But the tea party's priorities for our government are wrong. Their priorities are extreme because they are out of step with what most Americans want. Every poll shows Americans want to cut spending but with a smart, sharp scalpel, not a meat ax. They want to eliminate the fat but not cut down into the bone. They want to focus on waste and abuse. They want to cut oil and gas subsidies. They want to end tax breaks for millionaires.
They do not want to cut border security or port security funding that keeps us safe. They do not want to take a meat ax and cut vital education programs. They do not want to end cancer research that could produce research that saves many lives. Most of all, unlike the tea party, most Americans do not want the government to shut down. They want both sides to compromise.
A deal is at hand if Republicans in Congress will tune out the tea party voices that are shouting down any compromise. These tea party voices will only grow louder as we get closer to a deal, and our resolve must remain strong. If the Speaker will reject their calls for a shutdown, we can pass a bipartisan agreement. Many conservatives whom I would otherwise disagree with, agree with me on at least this point.
It was very interesting to see on FOX News yesterday three commentators all on the same show, plainly agreeing it is time to accept a compromise with Democrats to avert a shutdown. Charles Krauthammer was adamant that a shutdown would be avoided and that if the government did shut down, the Republicans would be blamed.
Kirsten Powers, a conservative columnist, said: ``What really should happen is if Boehner could strike a deal with the Blue Dogs and the moderate Dems and just go with the 30 billion with the Senate and just move on.''
Bill Kristol agreed that while Republicans may like to pass a budget solely on their terms with only Republican votes, the reality is, the Speaker would need Democrats to get a deal done.
The tea party may have helped the Republicans win the last election, but they are not helping the Republicans govern. The tea party is a negative force in these talks. But we are close to overcoming this force and cutting a deal.
As the negotiations enter the homestretch, here is how we should define success: First and foremost, a government shutdown should be avoided. We should all agree on that. It bothers me when I hear some on the other side of the aisle or in the tea party say: We should shut down the government to get what we want.
Second, the top-line target for cuts should stay around the level described by the Vice President and that both parties are working off of. This makes complete sense, since $33 billion is the midpoint between the two sides, and it is what Republicans originally wanted in February before the tea party forced them to go higher.
Third, the makeup of the cuts, as I suggested a few weeks ago, should not come only from domestic discretionary spending. We cannot solve our deficit problem by going after only 12 percent of the budget. Mandatory spending cuts must be part of the package, and the higher the package goes, the more the proportion should be tilted in favor of mandatory rather than discretionary spending.
Fourth, the most extreme of the riders cannot be included. There are some riders we can probably agree on. But the EPA measure is not one of them, neither is Planned Parenthood or the other extreme riders that have been so controversial.
I believe we can settle on a few measures that both sides think are OK. But the most extreme ones do not belong in this budget bill. Those are issues that should probably be debated but not as part of a budget and not holding the budget hostage to them. If we can adhere to these tenets, we can have a deal both sides can live with. Time is short, and we need to begin moving on to the pressing matter of the 2012 budget.
Speaking of the 2012 budget, let me say a quick word about that. I saw today that House Republicans planned to unveil their blueprint next week. Interestingly, the report said Republicans no longer plan to cut Social Security benefits as part of that blueprint. They are admitting it is not a major driver of our current deficits. That is true, and this is a positive development.
It comes after many of us on the Democratic side, including Leader Reid and myself, have insisted that Social Security benefits not be cut as part of any deficit-reduction plan. It is good to see that Republicans, including the House Budget chairman, according to the reports in the paper, now agree with us. His original plan called for privatizing the program. I hope we are not going to bring up that again because it will not pass.
But if the House Republicans instead simply insist on balancing the budget on the backs of Medicare recipients instead of Social Security recipients, we will fight them tooth and nail over that too. There has to be give on all sides--shared sacrifice, not just in any one little area.
A lot is at stake in the current year's budgets. But in another sense, it is simply a prelude to the larger discussions ahead. We urge the Speaker to resist the tea party rallies of today and the ones that are to come, to accept the offer on the table on this year's budget, and let us tackle the larger topics that still await us.
Would the Senator yield for a question?
I would be happy to yield to my friend from Florida.
In the Senator's opinion, why would the Republicans, particularly from the House of Representatives, want to cut Social Security, since the Social Security system has little, if any, effect upon us getting our arms around the deficit and moving the budget toward balance over the next 10 years?
My friend makes a good point. In fact, by law, the Social Security system and its pluses and minuses and the Federal Government's budget and its pluses and minuses must be separate. So by definition, by law, the two are separate. Social Security has its liabilities and assets, a big pile of assets over here, and the Federal Government has its liabilities and assets. The twain don't meet. One would think, particularly those who are saying privatize, that their opposition or desire to include Social Security in large-scale budget deficit talks, which we need and which are good--and I commend the group of six for moving forward in this direction--one would think that is an ideological agenda because they simply don't like Social Security and want to change it, privatize it, whatever, rather than any motivation about the deficit.
Then when we see that some of them may want to extend tax breaks for millionaires permanently, which would increase the deficit by a huge amount, and yet at the same time they say: Let's deal with Social Security, let's privatize it, which doesn't have anything to do with the deficit, one scratches one's head and says: I don't think deficit reduction is what is going on here.
I thank the Senator for his erudite analysis.
I thank my colleague for his erudite question.
I yield the floor.
The Senator from Rhode Island.
I ask unanimous consent to speak in morning business for 20 minutes.
Without objection, it is so ordered.
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