TOPICS > Politics

Split the Difference?

December 18, 1995 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, to four members of Congress who represent some of the major positions and groups involved in these budget negotiations: Two Senators, Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine, Democrat Barbara Boxer of California; two House members, freshman Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Democrat Gary Condit of California. Sen. Boxer, what do you think is the issue that is really at the heart of this impasse?

SEN. BARBARA BOXER, (D) California: (Capitol Hill) I think what’s at the heart of the impasse is the huge tax cut which is called the crown jewel of the Republican Contract, which takes $245 billion and essentially gives a tax break to the wealthiest. As a matter of fact, the people over $350,000 get at least $8500 a year on out forever. So I think because they need to do that and they think that’s the most important thing–and I’m talking about the hard line Republicans now, they’re cutting the heart out of Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment. And if we can break through that hard line, I think we can reach some kind of a compromise.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Graham, you’re a freshman Republican, and I guess you would fall into the category of hard line as at least defined by Sen. Boxer. Did she lay it out correctly? Do you agree that that’s what is at the heart of this?

REP. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) South Carolina: (Capitol Hill) No. The President’s 0 for 4 in trying to balance the budget and the reason he’s 0 for 4 is because he spends too much money. The heart of this debate is the President can’t control spending enough to get it within the CBO projected revenues for the next seven years. The liberal left of the Democratic Party will not allow him to cut spending. You’ve got moderate Democrats and conservative Democrats who want to try to break that model, but the real problem is that the President spends too much money. He’s put at least three budgets in that don’t balance because he spends too much. The only way you ever balance the budget is control your spending within your revenues. That’s the heart of the problem. The tax cut issue is like Medicare. It’s a bogus issue. It’s a red herring. What the Democratic left want to do with the tax cuts and what the President has done when he reduced the tax cuts, they spend it on the federal government. 80 percent of the American public will say this: I’ll forego a tax cut to get my–for my family and business if I get my children out of debt sooner. They’re not saying, I’ll forego a tax cut and give it to President Clinton to spend on the federal government. That’s exactly what he’s going to do with the tax cut money, is grow the government, reduce the family budget.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Snowe, some people would suggest that what we’ve just heard here with Sen. Boxer on one side and Congressman Graham on the other are the two battle positions. Where do you come down, and what do you see as the–as what is really at the heart of this?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE, (R) Maine: (Capitol Hill) Well, I think, I think it’s obvious that everybody’s taken positions on this issue because it’s very difficult when you talk about balancing the budget in seven years. But the fact of the matter is there are many of us Congress who think that we can split the differences on some of these issues. The President supported a tax cut. There are many who have supported task cuts, many that don’t. And the fact is I even voted to defer or eliminate it. But that’s not the reality, so what we have done, is a group of us in the Senate, Democrats and Republicans, have come together to try to resolve these differences. They’re not irreconcilable. I think that we can split these differences because I don’t think they’re that great that it would reach an impasse where we cannot pass a balanced budget in seven years. The President has said he supported a balanced budget. It’s important for him to come to the table with the negotiators in Congress. But what we have demonstrated through our plan that we issued as a framework for moving these negotiations forward is that it can be done. And that’s the important message that many of us want to get across to the American people, that there is a centrist position to all of this, and that it can be resolved and that we can go home with a balanced budget in seven years.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Condit, you are part of the group called Blue Dog Democrats. First of all, before I ask you any questions, explain what that means.

REP. GARY CONDIT, (D) California: (Capitol Hill) Well, everybody attaches their own definition to it, but some of us think we have a kind of a discriminating way of coming to solutions. We just can’t be taken for granted, so–and other people think it’s a Yellow Dog Democrat that’s been choked turns blue. So use whichever definition you want.

JIM LEHRER: It comes from the expression Yellow Dog Democrat, which is something that began during Sam Rayburn’s time in East Texas, that–


JIM LEHRER: –that a good Democrat would vote for a yellow dog if she or he were a Democrat.

REP. GARY CONDIT: The formal name of our group is coalition. We take the blue dog name in good humor.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Okay. Now, where you come down on this budget impasse is, well, you tell us. You’re kind of in-between these two and almost where Sen. Snowe is, right?

REP. GARY CONDIT: Pretty close. We’ve got our own budget, balances the budget in seven years, and we think we do it in a sound, responsible way, and frankly, we think that there is a middle ground. We think that we’re going to end up somewhere in the middle. It can be done. We don’t think we’re that far away. Sen. Boxer is correct that the Medicaid part of this is a sticky area, and we need to try to resolve that. The tax cut is a problem. We need to try to resolve that, but we’re not that far away. I think if we could focus on the issue of–

JIM LEHRER: You’re not far away from whom?

REP. GARY CONDIT: From our Republican colleagues on finding some middle ground on this. We’re talking and discussing with them every day, including the administration as well. We think we can find some middle ground.

JIM LEHRER: How far are you away from Sen. Boxer and those who feel the way she is within your own party?

REP. GARY CONDIT: Well, she’ll have to say where she is, but I think she is correct. We need to, we need to resolve the Medicare and Medicaid problem, and we need to talk about the tax cuts, what does that mean in numbers.

JIM LEHRER: Now, your plan, the Blue Dog Democratic plan, does away with tax cuts, right?

REP. GARY CONDIT: Yeah. We, we don’t have any tax cuts in our plan. We balance the budget in seven years, and we do it with CBO numbers. It doesn’t mean that we’re opposed to tax cuts. We just think that really the priority ought to be balancing the budget in seven years. We think that’s what the American people want us to do. That’s what we set out to do.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, Sen. Boxer, you heard Sen. Snowe and Congressman Condit say, hey, there is middle ground here between you and, and Congress Graham and his position on it. Do you see middle ground when you look at this?

SEN. BARBARA BOXER: Absolutely, absolutely. And the best thing that’s happened is this entire weekend all the Democrats I would say that represent and reflect our party, from the most conservative to the most liberal, have been meeting. And I think there is a way to get through this. As a matter of fact, I haven’t told this to my friend, Sen. Snowe, she and I are friends, that I’m beginning to think maybe the women in Congress, Republicans and Democrats, ought to get together. We’re so used to bringing the kids together after a fight maybe we can see our way clear, but I think, I think there’s definitely room. And I would make another prediction. I think the President’s next offer that he will put down will go a long way to doing what he really believes the American people want. They want a balanced budget in seven years, but they want to make sure Medicare, Medicaid are protected, and education and the environment. And I believe he will have that document, and I think we should get right off dead center and sit down and get it done.

JIM LEHRER: Is that based on hope on your part, or–


JIM LEHRER: –is that based on information?

SEN. BARBARA BOXER: Information.


SEN. BARBARA BOXER: Information. We have been sitting, and Gary Condit was in part of these also, Charlie Stenholm, others, from Ted Kennedy to, you know, to Charlie Stenholm, from John Breaux to Paul Wellstone, we have been sitting together, and I sense that people really want to get this thing resolved. We think it would be good for the country, and I think that the President is going to lead us in that direction with his proposal.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Graham, when people talk about a compromise, it came up several times today, in fact, in the competing statements and press releases and press conferences, that it’s always the freshman Republicans who everybody says either positively or negatively will not give on this. Is that accurate?

REP. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, what’s accurate is this. The coalition Blue Dogs, every what you would like to call their group who I know many of them and like, have put together a budget that balances in seven years, CBO’s score. The President has not. He has promised to do that. The game is not how close you can get to it. The game is to put in a balanced budget, CBO scored, which is a third party that balances in the year 2002. Until the President does that, I don’t see really any need to negotiate against myself anymore. Any American business group would have walked away from the table a long time ago after you make promise after promise and you break it. Here’s what we’ve done in the freshman class. We put a budget in that basically freezes spending and balanced in five years, and it spent about $11.2 trillion on the federal government. I’ve been here a year from now debating balancing the budget. During the debate period, we spent a trillion dollars talking about balancing the federal budget. The President’s latest attempt, which is $115 billion deficits in the year 2002, goes to twelve four [$12.4 trillion]. The longer you talk about balancing the budget in this place, the more money you spend. The tax cuts have went from $345 billion down to $78 billion under the President’s latest plan. What they want to do with the tax cuts is take money earmarked for the American family, which is not under-taxed, take the capital gains tax, which would help the economy, take it off the table, and spend it on the federal government. That needs to stop. I’m new to Congress, but I’m not new to life. You’ve got to control your spending. You’ve got to have some discipline, and the President has yet shown the willingness or the ability to spend within a CBO-scored budget in seven years, and until he does that, I’m not going to bid against myself. And that’s my challenge to the President, is come up with a set of priorities, and I’ll talk to you about where we can find common ground.

SEN. BARBARA BOXER: Could I jump here at this point?


SEN. BARBARA BOXER: I really have to say to Congressman Graham, he talks about broken promises, you know, we all came together around a continuing resolution that didn’t just say one thing. It said about four things, and what it said was that there would be a balanced budget in seven years, CBO scored after consultation with other experts, and that, in fact, it would protect the priorities that President Clinton believes the American people share, Medicaid and Medicare, education, environment, a couple of other things. But he just keeps talking about–Rep. Graham– the one part. Now, the President has very legitimate disputes about the assumptions, but I think he’s going to get past that because we need to negotiate in good faith. But what I hear from him is that there’s only a one-way promise here. CBO said–and there’s no promise about the priorities.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Snowe.

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: Thank you, because the important fact is the President has agreed to CBO assumptions. Our group of centrist Democrats and Republicans have agreed to CBO assumptions, but the bottom line is we can reach a balanced budget in seven years if we’re willing to negotiate in good faith. And that’s what we owe to the American people. It can be done. And I would hope that we could get everybody together to negotiate in good faith so that we get that agreement. I would hope we set aside the assumptions and the tax cuts and the Medicaid and Medicare. We are all on position on that. We’ve seen the partisan posturing. But now we have to get to the fine numbers here, and I think we can do it. Our plan has demonstrated already that Democrats and Republicans can come together. We know that Republicans have to come down on tax cuts, and we know that Democrats have to come up in reductions in Medicare and Medicaid and other entitlements. And there is that middle ground. And I hope we can move forward, rather than having this impasse and stalemate that’s presented itself in Washington. We’ve seen what’s happened to the stock market today. We’re in uncharted waters. I think it’s irresponsible, and I think the American people deserve to have us move forward.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Condit, is this, what’s happening in Washington, irresponsible?

REP. GARY CONDIT: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think that the fact that we’re shutting the government down is just unacceptable. I mean, at a minimum, we ought to be proceeding again with negotiations, good faith negotiations on everybody’s part. The President, in my opinion, should have agreed to CBO, the seven years, and we ought to be at the table negotiating, and the government ought to be functioning. This is just–not only is the stock market down, but the American public’s attitude about us is down, and it’s down because we’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing, and that’s making the country work. Let me tell you, the coalition budget, we’ve done the things that we talked about tonight. We balanced the budget in seven years, we used CBO, we protect the integrity of Medicare, we protect the integrity of Medicaid. We do welfare reform. We think it’s a valuable tool, and the President ought to put it on the table, use it as his budget, and let’s get busy. Let’s get this done and get home. We think the American people are a little bit frustrated with what it is we’re doing.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Congressman Graham, Congressman Graham, if I read what you’re saying correctly, you believe you’re doing what you came here to do.

REP. LINDSEY GRAHAM: I know that Lindsey Graham is doing what the people of the third district want me to do, and that’s balance the budget using outside, third-party evaluations, Congressional Budget Office numbers. I would complicate the coalition because they have done what I’m looking for the President to do, use CBO-scored numbers and get a budget to balance in seven years. Being close is not enough, and he’s still not close. What I’m asking the President to do is simply this: Put a budget in that meets the same criteria that the coalition has used and that the Republican Party has used, then we can start negotiating. To me, it’s not good faith to use OMB numbers after you sign a law saying you use CBO numbers.

JIM LEHRER: What about Sen. Boxer’s point about what you have said and your position, which is that you’re only taking half the deal–in other words, the first half, and ignoring the second half of the deal, which was what the President wanted, was to protect Medicare, Medicaid, the environment, and other issues, other things?

REP. LINDSEY GRAHAM: The first two parts of the deal are this: That you will put into–on the table a budget that balances in seven years, CBO-scored, and we will look at Medicare and Medicaid and try to protect them as the parties can come to an agreement. He has not done the first two. He has not put in a budget that balances in seven years, CBO-scored, and that is an obligation that we have all met, except the President. The Congress, House, and Senate have done that. The President has failed to do that. And I’m tired of negotiating against myself. I’m new to politics, but, again, I’m not new to life. I expect him to do what the coalition has done. I expect him to do what the House and Senate has done, put on the table a budget that balances in seven years objectively scored, then we can get down to the heart of the matter, we’ll talk about tax cuts, we can talk about Medicare, and let me say one thing about Medicare. President Clinton said this in 1993: We propose to let Medicare go up two times the rate of inflation. This is not a Medicare or Medicaid cut, and we have kept private sector increases so they won’t go up as much. So only in Washington do people believe that no one can get by on twice the rate of inflation. We’ve done exactly that. Our Medicare budget is twice the level of inflation and spending. Hillary Clinton said before Congress, if you slow Medicare spending from 11 percent to 6 to 7 percent, you can save Medicare, have good quality health care for senior citizens, and balance the budget. We have spent 7.2 percent, an increase on Medicare, 62 percent overall over the seven years. We have done what the President and Mrs. Clinton talked about two years ago.

SEN. BARBARA BOXER: Jim, I have to just say something.


SEN. BARBARA BOXER: For Rep. Graham to say we have done what the President wants is, is extraordinarily disingenuous. But let me just say–


JIM LEHRER: Let her finish please.

SEN. BARBARA BOXER: May I just say that–may I finish–here’s the point I want to make. If we’re going to quote the President and the First Lady, why don’t we quote Newt Gingrich, who said Medicare ought to wither on the vine. He said we can’t kill it outright, and that’s what $270 billion in cuts will mean. In addition, in addition, Bob Dole has said very clearly recently that he is proud to lead the fight against Medicare when Medicare came up way back in the 60’s when he was in the Senate at that time. So you have to deal with history for sure. And I think it’s important to note that if we take $270 billion out of Medicare, it simply will not survive as we know it, and that’s why the President said he would even give up this presidency. He put it on the line, and he’s going to stand firm to make sure we do what Sen. Snowe says. He is not going to take a budget that destroys Medicare and Medicaid to pay for a huge tax cut. And I’m glad that we’re working together to move away from that, and I’m also glad Rep. Graham likes the coalition budget. That has zero tax cuts in it.

JIM LEHRER: Let me go back to Sen. Snowe and Congressman Condit before we go. We have the two folks in the middle. Did you hear anything here tonight that makes you more hopeful about, about resolving this?

REP. GARY CONDIT: Well, it is–

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: Actually, I think that–

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Snowe first.

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: I think that in spite of what has been said here, I think those differences can be bridged. Again, having been in a room with six Democrats and six Republicans and we had all our differences, many of them didn’t want tax cuts, some wanted some, some wanted more reductions in entitlements, some less, but we managed to sit down, say, listen, what’s the most important thing that we can accomplish, and that is what we were united by was a balanced budget in seven years. So I think it’s possible, and I think the message here tonight is the bottom line. It is doable if everybody will negotiate in good faith at the bargaining table.

JIM LEHRER: Have they been doing that thus far, Senator?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: I think I’ve had some real problems with it, to be honest with you, because first of all, they’re arguing about the assumptions, the CBO assumptions. Everybody has said that you have to use the most conservative assumptions. I’m glad the President supported those assumptions. I think we ought to go forward. We can make adjustments, as we’re proposing, during the year if those assumptions are overly pessimistic, so that we can put more into entitlements and so on. But we’ve got to start from here. We cannot, I think, erode the confidence of the American people in the political process because we’re arguing day in and day out without resolution. It’s not a “now or nothing” proposition.

JIM LEHRER: Are you optimistic, Congressman Condit?

REP. GARY CONDIT: Absolutely. I think the discussion we’ve heard tonight just crystallized the fact that we’ve got to move this solution to the center, and that’s where the solution will come from. And I think we can do it, and I think we will do it.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank–

SEN. BARBARA BOXER: And I think the President will lead the way.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Congressman Graham, do you agree, the President’s going to lead the way?

REP. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, that would be something new to debate, but anyway, I’m optimistic too that we will sit down and work with anybody who gets a CBO-scored balanced budget in seven years, and we’ll get it done.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you all four very much.