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Four congressmen discuss the budget showdown

January 3, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Congressman Graham, President Clinton accused you House Republicans of holding federal workers hostage today. Guilty or not guilty, sir?

REP. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) South Carolina: (Capitol Hill) No, sir, not guilty. What I’m trying to do is fulfill a campaign promise to balance the budget. I’m asking the President to keep his commitment. We’ve done one continuing resolution when we reached an impasse to allow the government to reopen for a 30-day period, and during that period, the President was going to get a budget together that reflected his values, his opinions, his beliefs but that would be balanced in seven years objectively scored. He’s yet to do that. And I think the question for Lindsey Graham is, is it reasonable for me to expect the President to honor that commitment now when he didn’t do it before? And if I think the answer is no, I should hold firm and ask the President what Gary Condit and a coalition has done, they have put together a budget that balances in seven years, CBO-scored, so when Mr. Condit says he wants to balance the budget, I know he’s serious about it and he’s sincere about it because he’s constructed a budget that does balance. And when the President does that, we’ll get this thing over with very quickly. If he continues to talk about doing it and fails to deliver, we’re going to have a problem that continues, unfortunately.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Condit, you heard what the Congressman said. He used your name–if the President would do what you’re doing, then everything would be all right. Is that really the issue here?

REP. GARY CONDIT, (D) California: (Capitol Hill) Well, we’ve encouraged the President to put a seven-year balanced budget on the table. We’ve encouraged him to put the coalition budget on the table, and frankly, we think the President ought to put a balanced budget on the table. He’s rhetorically said that he’s for that. We just think he ought to do it, and it would move this process along, and he’s got one right out there, and that’s the coalition budget, that achieves all the objectives that the Republicans want to achieve. It’s CBO-scored, it balances in seven years. It doesn’t have a tax cut, but we can probably negotiate some of the points. We just need to get this process moving, and we would encourage him to grab that budget and run with it.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Congressman Condit, with the Republican strategy of, of keeping the shutdown going until the President does this?

REP. CONDIT: No. Frankly, I think it’s foolish for us to keep the government shut down. If we want to assess the importance of different segments of the government, we ought to do that in a business-like way and not just do it the way we’re doing it, just spontaneously shutting everything down. I think that’s unfortunate, and I think that it ought not to be done this way.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s move over to the Senate. Sen. Chafee, I assume you voted with the Senate Majority Leader last night, Robert Dole, is that correct?

SEN. JOHN CHAFEE, (R) Rhode Island: (Capitol Hill) I certainly did, Jim. I think Sen. Dole was right. I think that what we ought to do is get these federal employees back to work. A lot of innocent people are being hurt, not just the federal employees, but people who are looking for passports, that they’ve made commitments, paid air fare, non-redeemable, a lot of people all across the country are being hurt. I think the proposal Sen. Dole had of, of a continuing resolution until January 12th, so that we could continue the negotiations with the administration and the House on trying to get a balanced budget, made a lot of sense.

JIM LEHRER: But, Senator, what do you say to Congressman Graham’s point, that the President has not kept his word and he has not made this–he has not put a seven-year budget on the table like he said he would?

SEN. CHAFEE: Well, as you know, I’m not out here to defend the President. All I’m saying is I personally favor, and the Senate as a whole, Republicans and Democrats do, that we continue the negotiations without having the necessity of keeping–hurting so many people as this shutdown does. And, frankly, it’s not bulling the President into a rapid agreement, as we’ve already shown that. As you know, we put together in the Senate between Republicans and Democrats a balanced budget. We show that it can be done, and I would urge the negotiators to keep going and going at it, go at it hard, in order to achieve this balanced budget, which can be done.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Graham, back to you for a moment. The President said the same thing that Sen. Chafee just said today, that your strategy is not working, in other words, it– holding the government closed down is not going to cause him to make a deal any faster on the budget.

REP. GRAHAM: I don’t know what will make the President put a budget on the table that balances in seven years. If I knew the answer to that question, I would do it. If it takes giving up my pay–that’s the only thing holding us up–I’ll give up my pay, but somebody needs to ask the question, why has the President continually talked about balancing the budget and has not done so, why is he 0 for 4? Why did he not do it during the 30 days when we reopened the government, hoping that we would reach a compromise? I can sit down with Gary Condit, and we can solve this in a day. We can take the coalition budget, and we can take the Republican budget, and we can compromise and get the government reopened and have a balanced budget for the 21st century. The long-term picture is: How will the federal government operate in the future? Will it continue to spend more than it has to spend? Will it continue to dominate our lives, or is it going to change? I want it to change because the American people told me to change it. And that’s what we’re trying to do. Please tell me why the President hasn’t put a balanced budget on the table that we can negotiate from. I don’t know the answer to that.

JIM LEHRER: Well, let’s ask Sen. Moseley-Braun. Why has the President not done so, Senator?

SEN. CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN, (D) Illinois: (Chicago) The Constitution of the United States gives the Congress the purse strings, and so in the first instance, it is our responsibility to come up with a budget, and I believe we should have a balanced budget. I’ve always supported and many Democrats have supported a balanced budget. The Senate Republicans are correct. It’s time to get passed this partisan foolishness. It’s time to show a little maturity, to not act quite so arrogant as the House Republicans, frankly, seem to be acting. This is an irrational response to a situation that is, in my opinion, truly political and really hurting a lot of people. It hurts not just the federal workers but people who can’t get their passports, people who won’t get Meals on Wheels, people who rely on unemployment insurance. Sen. Chafee’s own state is, I guess, slated to run out of money shortly on the unemployment insurance payments. So we have an obligation in government. That’s the whole idea of a democracy, is that one comes together to work through issues in a legislative process. That process means that people listen to each other. It means that they talk about priorities. It means they try to find consensus, and that’s not what’s going on, unfortunately, on the House Republican side.

JIM LEHRER: But, Senator, Congressman Graham says that the President is the one who has not been negotiating in good faith.

SEN. MOSELEY-BRAUN: Well, you know, I can’t–I’m just responding. You asked me the question.


SEN. MOSELEY-BRAUN: And the Constitution gives us guidance here, and I think, if anything, we need to look to what are our constitutional responsibilities. Our responsibilities are to keep this government functioning in behalf of the American people. And if it means that we achieve a balanced budget, I have always supported–I’m a Democrat who’s voted consistently for a balanced budget, because I think it’s important for us to do. But certainly getting there should not mean that we run roughshod over people’s lives and futures. I talked to some federal employees who, who couldn’t spend Christmas and the New Year with their families for fear of not being able to pay their rent and their mortgages. It’s just outrageous, and frankly, in my opinion, irrational and an irrational abuse of power that I think we ought to really call on these members to calm down a little bit, grow up a little bit, and lets get this government back to working.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Graham, she’s talking about you.

REP. GRAHAM: Well, let me just say this as respectfully as I can. One of the things that we need to understand is that there’s an obligation to keep your word that should be just as genuine up here as it is at home. I’ve only been in Congress a year. I practiced law. I didn’t win all my cases, but other lawyers and judges could expect Lindsey Graham to keep his word. We have appropriated bills that the President has vetoed. The reason the government is partially shut down is he vetoed the bills that the House and the Senate appropriated and passed because he wants to spend more money than we’ll allow him to spend. It’s a spending issue, but if you really want to get to the heart of the matter of why we’re at an impasse, it’s because the President–and I keep asking this question–has not fulfilled a commitment he made. He vetoed our budget, which is okay. He doesn’t have to have Lindsey Graham’s view of how to construct the budget. He needs to have a view that we’ll be balanced in seven years. When he vetoed our budget, I think he’s got a moral obligation to put a plan on the table that meets the criteria of moderate Democrats and let us negotiate from documents that were all on the same sheet of music from. He’s yet to do that.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Chafee–yes.

SEN. MOSELEY-BRAUN: But Congress could be working. People could be–the continuing resolution could have been passed. There was no reason for you and the House Republicans to hold all of these people hostage and to hold our entire country at bay because you’re angry with the President. We could work through these issues.

REP. GRAHAM: All I would say is this. The President vetoed the appropriation bills that shut down the government down in the form of the shutdown. The reason I believe he vetoed those bills is we didn’t appropriate enough money to satisfy his spending habit. If the Senator wants to balance the budget, I compliment for that–compliment her for that. I know Gary Condit wants to do so because he’s constructed a budget that balances. The deal that we made 30 some days ago, almost 40 days ago, was that the President would construct a budget that would balance objectively scored. He’s yet to fulfill that commitment. He ran as a candidate during the election to balance the budget in five years. He’s yet to put in a budget that balances in any length of time, and until he does, I’m negotiating against myself, and I’m sorry about the shutdown. I really do hate that. I know it’s very inconvenient. It’s a terrible thing to experience, but we’ve got 265 million people whose future is at stake. We need to make our commitments mean something in Washington just like they mean something in South Carolina. When he puts a budget on the table that’s CBO-scored, we will get this done in a matter of days or hours.

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask Congressman Condit a question. You’ve had a lot of contact not only with Congressman Graham and the House Republicans but also with the Democratic leadership and with the President and his folks. Are you convinced that the President and his people want a balanced budget in seven years?

REP. CONDIT: I’m convinced the President wants a balanced budget in seven years, and I think that he’s been very supportive of what the coalition has been doing, but I must say that I do think there are Democrats and Republicans who are not anxious for us to get an agreement.

JIM LEHRER: Why not?

REP. CONDIT: Well, I don’t know. I think that that’s a strategy that for some reason they believe that works for them politically or publicly policy-wise, and that’s okay. But what’s not okay is for the rest of us, the majority of the people in the House, want a balanced budget in seven years, we want the ability to vote for that, and Lindsey is absolutely right. If Lindsey and I get in a room with some other people in about a day and a half, we think we could come up with an agreement. As a matter of fact, we’ve just in the next few days, the coalition will be filing a petition to discharge our bill to try to get it to the floor under an open rule and let Republicans and Democrats amend our bill, if they want. They can put the tax cuts in; they can change different components of the bill. We just think that we ought to get moving and get a vote on a balanced budget in seven years and, and quit this nonsense of, of stalling each other for whatever strategy reasons someone calls.

JIM LEHRER: But meanwhile the government stays partially shut down?

REP. CONDIT: Well, that’s unfortunate, and I’d like to resolve that, and frankly, maybe if the President put the coalition budget on the table in good faith, maybe the Republicans would agree to a CR for a short period of time. Maybe that would work, but we need to do something like that to get this thing moving.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Chafee, where do you see a solution to this thing? You’ve been around here a while.

SEN. CHAFEE: Well, I think what we ought to do have the clean CR, keep the government open during the next several days.

JIM LEHRER: But the House clearly isn’t going to do that.

SEN. CHAFEE: I mean, I think they have to realize we’re getting nowhere the way we are, and have the negotiations go on, and at the end of that time, see if we’re making progress. Frankly, I think that if everybody buckles down and puts their minds to it, I agree with the gentleman, that there can be an agreement, the framework of agreement arrived at rather swiftly, compromise on the tax cuts, compromise on the Medicare savings, compromise on the Medicaid savings, do something about the Consumer Price Index. All of these things can be negotiated, can be compromised, and I think they ought to get to it. But, meanwhile, I don’t think it’s necessary to have the whole government shut down and cause a cruelty that is taking place out there. That’s a separate matter that isn’t going to speed up the negotiations as it’s been proven.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Moseley-Braun, do you see from your perspective a solution, a middle ground, between say your position and the President’s on the one side, and Congressman Graham and the House Republicans, particularly the freshmen, on the other?

SEN. MOSELEY-BRAUN: Well, I think the middle ground is, again, I just mentioned that it’s just a matter of getting, of growing up a little bit, and not being quite so immature about the politics of this. If anything, the Senate Republicans have faced the fact that we have to come together. We have to find common ground. We have to work together. The legislative process requires some level of civility that bomb throwing just doesn’t comprehend, and you just can’t continue to do that and take pot shots at people and make it all so very personal when you’re trying to work to agreement. I think that we have to come together, we have to find common ground, we have to begin to talk about getting rid of a lot of this tax cut business. That’s a stumbling block. What are we going to do about Medicare and Medicaid and coming back from the extreme position that they have taken? We can take some steps that I believe will get us toward balance and will allow us to resolve this issue, but the first step, of course, is to pass a clean continuing resolution to let the federal workers go back to work, and then let us get on and try to approach our job in a sensible, level-headed, foot-on-the–feet-on-the-ground kind of way.

JIM LEHRER: But that is not going to happen from your perspective, Congressman Graham, if you have your way, is that correct?

REP. GRAHAM: JIM LEHRER, I’m 40 years old. I’ve never had everything my way in life. I don’t expect to have everything my way up here. I do expect to have to compromise. If you put myself and Gary Condit and other people in a room, we would compromise on the tax cuts, we would compromise on–

JIM LEHRER: I mean on the CR, on the CR to keep the government [from being] shut down while you talked–you’re not going to–you’re never going to vote for that, right?

REP. GRAHAM: I don’t feel an oblig–it’s time for Washington and people who work in the government to honor their commitments. The President should do exactly what Gary suggested, adopt the coalition budget, or a version thereof.


REP. GRAHAM: Then I think we would get a continuing resolution passed.

JIM LEHRER: And unless he does that, unless he does that, you will not vote to reopen the government?

REP. GRAHAM: Yes, sir, because I don’t trust the President of the United States–

JIM LEHRER: All right.

REP. GRAHAM: –to seriously want to balance the budget, given his past behavior.


REP. GRAHAM: When he changes that behavior, I’ll talk with him.

JIM LEHRER: All right. We’ll leave it there. Thank you all four very much.