May 15, 2011

Jonathan Riskind: Senators could face tough vote on debt cap

A debate over raising the nation's debt limit is hardly a novel experience for U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe.

During a congressional career that has spanned more than three decades -- three terms in the Senate and seven terms before that in the House -- the Maine Republican has cast 47 debt ceiling votes, she recalled last week in an interview outside the Senate chamber.

Seven times, she has voted against raising the debt ceiling while there has been a Democrat in the White House. Five times, Snowe has voted against raising the debt limit while a fellow Republican has been in the White House.

Over the years, of course, the nation's debt ceiling has kept going up.

The current $14.3 trillion debt limit must be raised, since the alternative is the U.S. government defaulting on its obligations and sparking a global financial catastrophe, Snowe acknowledges.

But just as vital to global financial stability, she contends, is packaging a debt ceiling increase with a comprehensive overhaul of the federal budget that cuts back future spending with a "systematic" strategy that looks at fiscal issues in the short, intermediate and long terms.

Some Republican leaders, notably House Speaker John Boehner, already have taken hard-line negotiating positions, demanding at least $2 trillion in immediate cuts while taking any type of increased taxes off the table in exchange for agreeing to raise the debt limit.

The debt limit will be reached this week, but the White House says measures can be taken to keep borrowing until Aug. 2.

After a meeting last week between Senate Republicans and President Obama, Snowe and GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine made it clear in separate interviews on Capitol Hill that they aren't going to take a hard-line stance. Both know that all sides will have to make concessions to reach a deal.

"A lot of times, people start out in a negotiation with one position that isn't necessarily where they think they're going to end up," Collins said. "It is difficult to predict at this point what the approach and the way forward is going to be. We do need to have budget reforms as part of the debt ceiling."

Snowe and Collins surely know that, as moderate Republicans, they could face a tough vote on a debt ceiling bill that doesn't go far enough in its spending cuts to satisfy fiscal conservatives or eliminates programs that are near and dear to many Mainers.

The pressure, of course, is greater for Snowe, who is up for re-election next year and facing a tea party challenge even as Democrats wait to see if Snowe -- who won her third term with 74 percent of the vote -- could really be rendered vulnerable.

Of the 47 debt ceiling votes that she has participated in, Snowe notes, 22 were "clean" bills that did not add any conditions to the increase, while 25 did.

This time, there won't be a "clean" debt ceiling increase, Snowe said, expressing an opinion that has increasingly become a bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill.

"It can't be (clean) because we can't afford it, because of the message it would send and where we are. It's the level of debt -- anything could trigger a debt crisis," Snowe said.

Snowe made it clear that she's against the House GOP plan to partially privatize Medicare, and said she doesn't want Social Security to be part of the debt ceiling agreement.

It isn't time for a tax hike of the type Obama wants -- raising rates on Americans who earn more than $250,000 a year -- because that would hit too many small-business owners, but it may be possible to raise more revenue by overhauling the tax code, Snowe indicated.

Little of substance has gotten done in the Senate this year, so a concerted effort will be needed this summer to raise the workload, Snowe said.

"It's going to have to be systematic. ... We're going to have to set priorities and we're going to have to control growth in some of the programs, and others are going to be reduced," Snowe said. "These are not things you can summarily cobble together."

Collins has indicated that she isn't wedded to immediate spending cuts. Rather, she is looking at "procedural" budget reforms that ensure spending cuts but give lawmakers time to hash out the specifics.

"There are some who are looking at putting actual cuts on the debt ceiling, which is a different approach," Collins said. "I want to hear more from my colleagues on what they are thinking about, but to me, putting procedural reforms would help to pave the way for the cuts that we must consider later this year."

Snowe notes that while it's pretty easy for the majority to pass a vote along party lines in the House, it's different in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to pass any bill that is controversial.

That means "there is going to have to be movement on both sides," Snowe said. "In Maine, there is a saying, 'How do you get there from here?' And that is the key question. How do we?"

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at:

jriskind@mainetoday.com

 

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