REACTION FROM THE HILL
February 5, 1997
After the President's State of the Union speech, we get some reaction from four freshman Senators: two Republicans, Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas, and Susan Collins of Maine, and two Democrats, Robert Torricelli of New Jersey and Jack Reed of Rhode Island.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now reaction from the president's other audience last night and to Margaret Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: That other audience was on Capitol Hill. And we get reaction now from four freshman Senators: two Republican, Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas, and Susan Collins of Maine, and two Democrats, Robert Torricelli of New Jersey and Jack Reed of Rhode Island. Welcome all of you.
Sen. Hutchinson, the education proposals of the president, as you just heard, really seemed to strike a chord with our Denver folks, even the Republicans. How did they strike you?
SEN. TIM HUTCHINSON, (R) Arkansas: Well, they raised some concerns. I was very troubled. I think, first of all, let me say that when you listen to the focus group, I think everybody is concerned about education, particularly as you look at the schools and you look at following test scores, and so it does strike a chord. You look a little bit beyond that, though, and you hear about national standards; you talk about the federal government building school buildings; and the kind of things that the president was proposing really moves that power, flows that power back to Washington, D.C., and that airing is my concern. I want standards, and I want improved education, but I want local control. And I think that's going to raise a lot of concern among Republicans.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think--is that what you heard in the president's education proposals?
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI, (D) New Jersey: I heard a president's who's talking sense with people in this country, that this can't go on. We are in a fast international competition. And while we would like every local school district to build a good school, hire the best teachers, train them to the highest standards, that isn't happening. And either somebody comes in and starts doing some testing to let parents know whether or not their children or learning, which is all he suggested, not the federal government taking over the school--let's do a test, voluntary test, let parents know how their children do. And in those school districts where the buildings are falling down, or the roof is leaking, which I see all over New Jersey, and especially in our urban areas, let's give them the resources to get it fixed. Let's get college students to come in and help with literacy programs.
We've let this go on for so long, fooling ourselves that we're part of this rising international standard of education. We haven't been. We've left behind on it. If I have one disappointment, it is exactly the opposition. I've waited all my life to have a president who finally took this education problem seriously. But I think the president's steps were tentative and even incremental.
MARGARET WARNER: Where do you come down on this?
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, (R) Maine: Well, I'm somewhere in-between, I think. From my viewpoint, the federal government has a critical role in providing access to higher education, which is going to be key. 85 percent of the new jobs that are being created will require some kind of post-secondary education. So I was pleased to hear the president endorse an expansion of the Pell Grants, which allow needy students to go on to college and student loan programs. I agree with my colleague from Arkansas, however, that I don't think all of the answers to our education problems can be found in Washington. And I disagree with the president's apparent desire to actually mandate testing and particular grades. We already have a very good program of testing in the state of Maine. And it seems to me that those kinds of solutions are best found in local communities and in the state houses.
MARGARET WARNER: From what you've just heard from your Republican colleagues, do you see areas, at least in these education proposals, where there can be a meeting of the minds?
SEN. JACK REED, (D) Rhode Island: I think there are areas of common ground and common purpose. We recognize we're in a new world where education is probably the key. That recognition comes from everyone I speak to back in Rhode Island. I'm sure my colleagues in their states of Arkansas and New Jersey and Maine hear the same thing. That's what we heard in Denver. We do have to have access to higher education. I think the Pell Grant improvements are great. I think also that the Hope scholarships and the tax deductions are wonderful, particularly middle income Americans.
We do have to, though, get back and recognize first we have to have children prepared to learn when they enter kindergarten, first grade. That's one thing I didn't hear enough in the speech last evening, about WIC, about Head Start, about making sure that young children, ages from birth to five, to three, are cared for and prepared. And then we do have to take a serious look at standards in schools. I don't understand the president's speech as calling for mandatory testing. What he said is we will make a test available to states so that they can assess the progress of their students. The real missing link in education--and I've been dealing with this for six years in the House in the Education Committee--is that we do have--certain states have standards; certain states have assessments. But we never make the next step, which is testing children, and then evaluating them, and then taking the steps at the state level to improve education so that every child has a way to learn.
SEN. TIM HUTCHINSON: Margaret, could I comment?
MARGARET WARNER: Yes, please.
SEN. TIM HUTCHINSON: First of all, I want to say that I do believe that access in making higher education affordable is something that almost all of us agree that it's a proper role for the federal government.
MARGARET WARNER: And so let me just ask you that because I saw you nodding when your colleagues said that.
SEN. TIM HUTCHINSON: Right.
MARGARET WARNER: Would you be interested in supporting then the tax credits as deductions for post-secondary?
SEN. TIM HUTCHINSON: I think we've got to look at the details, but I think the Republican leadership and certainly I am very open to some of the proposals the president laid out for higher education, but when you look at the national standards--and there was a great deal of ambiguity in the devils of the details--and we'll see what all is involved--that's where I say that there are legitimate warnings, concerns that Republicans are going to have. And I think that we should have. Right now we have hundreds of federal education programs, a very small amount of the funding, but most of the paper work for the local schools coming from the federal government. I don't think we need more of that.
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: Well, you know, in fairness to the president, this is--the president stressed last night that this is a voluntary program in two grades; that in the fourth and seventh grade there would be a math and a science test made available to local students. They can take it or they cannot take it. If they take it, we will help fund it, and only as a tool so parents know whether or not in your state or mine children are competitive on a national level.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me move this on beyond education, because I also want to get your reaction to the overall speech. Again, our Denver folks seemed to feel that they heard the president really reaching out to you, Republicans on the budget and a lot of the other proposals. Is that what you heard? Did you hear a president genuinely looking for common ground?
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: I do believe that the president reached out to the Republicans. His endorsement of a balanced budget is a goal that we Republicans have had for a very long time. I'm pleased that the president now embraces that goal, but I was very disappointed in his harsh rhetoric against the constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget. We on the Republican side feel very strongly that the constitutional amendment is necessary to make fiscal responsibility a permanent obligation of congress and not a passing fad. And the--the harshness of the president's rhetoric, his invoking Social Security and attempting to frighten senior citizens about the consequences of the amendment I think was very unfortunate, but there is common ground, there are opportunities to work together. I know that's what the people in Maine want me to do, and I do believe there's a lot of opportunity for us to do just that.
MARGARET WARNER: What did you think of the president's highlighting his opposition to the balanced budget amendment?
SEN. JACK REED: I think it was entirely appropriate. I felt that he was underscoring what could be a terrible problem. A balanced budget amendment is different than balancing the budget. We have to balance a budget. We have been doing that incrementally over the last four years with great progress. A balanced budget amendment I think is going to embroil this country in a constitutional framework which will inhibit our economy, task most of these questions ultimately to the court to decide whether we are complying with the Constitution, and the president's comments I think were not only accurate but very timely and very important.
MARGARET WARNER: As a political matter, what do you think is the impact of him making that issue front and center, when, after all, of course, he doesn't have to sign this at all?
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: Well, he turned the temperature up last night. I have voted for a balanced budget amendment in the past.
MARGARET WARNER: When you were in the House.
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: And I may do so again, but this amendment is slightly different in one very important respect. The Republican leadership has redrafted it to provide for judicial review. Whether or not that means a federal judge in the future could instruct the congress or the president on either raising taxes or restricting spending, including Social Security, is at least a debatable issue. And the president doesn't have a vote on the constitutional amendment. To come before the congress last night and not address what constitutionally is probably the most important judgment this congress has made in the last 20 years would not have been responsible. I may or may not agree with him on a constitutional amendment, but he was right to raise the issue.
MARGARET WARNER: What did you think of what he had to say on budget matters in general and the balanced budget amendment?
SEN. TIM HUTCHINSON: It was very disappointing. He didn't deal with Medicare. He didn't really go into detail about the entitlements, and he said he's for a balanced budget, but we really didn't seem what he wanted to do there, and I was disappointed in that. But I thought it was really gratuitous for him to get into a balanced budget amendment, and in attempt to reach out and to form bipartisan consensus to take a shot on the balanced budget amendment I thought it was kind of unfortunate, and I--you know, I would really disagree with Jack, that we could pat ourselves on the back when we have a $100 billion plus deficit still and everybody knows that after the year 2002, they're going to start skyrocketing again. Thirty years proves we need the discipline of an amendment to the Constitution.
SEN. JACK REED: Well, one of the fallacies of the balanced budget amendment is the presumption that cone we pass it, then everything's fine; that Congress doesn't have to come in every year make tough decisions and tough choices. And you know that's not the case. With or without a balanced budget amendment, we ultimately have to decide. The fear of a balanced budget is that we would constrain ourselves so that we couldn't react to economic changes; we couldn't react to many things; and, in fact, I think it would be reviewed in retrospect as something akin to prohibition. It sounded like a nice idea at the time, but it just didn't work.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me introduce another topic from last night, and actually taking a comment made by a couple of the Denver people, they--some of them seem to feel that in a way this whole move to the center is, I think one gentleman said, you know, where's leadership, and somebody else talked about the mushy center. Does that bother you at all?
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: It bothers me enormously. Bipartisanship in this country has become a mantra that is almost indisputable. It is a goal in of itself. And it is not that I don't want us to be able to work together. We should. But we also should represent something. We should stand for something. Of course, we can all agree if we decide to do next to nothing, but the debate, the conflict, the exchange of ideas, as we've had here tonight legitimately on education, that is a service to the country. I'm concerned that, as I said, I love the idea that the President of the United States can come and share my views on talking about a national role in raising education standards, but then at the same time he comes and his steps were very tentative, in my judgment. They were very small because he's trying to govern the United States by consensus. Our system doesn't work by governing by consensus. Our system works by governing by majority. And I'm afraid that the search for bipartisanship means that the boldness of leadership, which has meant so much in our country, could be compromised.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you have fears on that score?
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: No. I have completely the opposite view. It seems to me that achieving compromises and striving for consensus is the best way to govern in this nation; that people are tired of partisan gridlock. They're tired of partisan finger pointing. They want us to work together to solve the problems. Certainly, we're going to disagree on issues. Certainly, we're going to bring different philosophies to these issues and to the debate, but the people of this country want constructive dialogue, and they want solutions. And we're not going to have that, other than trying to seek the middle. If we go off to extremes on either side, we're not going to do it what the American people want.
MARGARET WARNER: Briefly, do you have any concerns on this score?
SEN. JACK REED: My concerns echo in many respects Susan's, is that I do believe that the American people want us to be pragmatic and productive. I think the last congress they were very disenchanted because it got to be more ideological than pragmatic and productive.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. We'll have to leave it there. Thank you all very much.