November 17, 2013

Washington Notebook: William S. Cohen warns Congress on partisanship

WASHINGTON — Former U.S. Sen. and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen of Maine had stern words for Washington last week as he returned to a Capitol he said is looked upon “with less admiration” by Americans tired of the entrenched partisanship.

“We have to rededicate ourselves to the principle that we have to find a way to work together,” Cohen said.

Cohen was honored Thursday night with a Freedom Award from the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, a congressionally chartered institution. The award is given to individuals deemed to have “advanced greater public understanding and appreciation for freedom as represented by the U.S. Capitol and Congress.”

A Republican, Cohen represented Maine for 24 years in the U.S. House and then the U.S. Senate before President Clinton, a Democrat, asked him to join his Cabinet as defense secretary.

During remarks prior to the award presentation, House Minority Leader and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the Republican “a leader in his party but also a master of bipartisanship.”

When it was Cohen’s turn to speak, the Bangor native repeatedly touched on the topic of “freedom” and the symbol that the United States and the Capitol itself represent worldwide. But speaking to a crowd that included numerous lawmakers, Cohen suggested that image has been dimmed by a Congress regarded as mired in “paralysis and dysfunction.”

“The people now look at the Capitol with less admiration,” Cohen said. “The American people are angry. Our allies are confounded and confused.”

He added that the country cannot allow a “Closed for Business” sign to be hung on the Statue of Freedom standing atop the Capitol dome because of policymakers’ “unwillingness to reach across the aisle to find a way to move forward.”

“That’s impermissible. That’s unacceptable. That’s embarrassing for our country,” Cohen said.

He was introduced by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican who volunteered for Cohen’s first congressional campaign as a college student and later worked in his office. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, also attended the ceremony.

Cohen received the award along with former U.S. Rep. and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, a Democrat who served in the George W. Bush administration.

Cohen is the second Mainer – the other being former Sen. George Mitchell – to be honored by the U.S. Capitol Historical Society in the 20 years that the organization has bestowed the Freedom Award. Past recipients include former Sen. Bob Dole, the late House Speaker Tom Foley, C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.


Continuing his active role in major policy discussions, freshman Sen. Angus King arrived at Wednesday’s House-Senate budget negotiations hearing with his own proposal for resolving some of the vexing fiscal issues facing lawmakers.

In fact, King was the only member of the 29-person budget conference committee to put forward a more comprehensive proposal during the meeting.

King jokingly referred to it as a “grande” plan, a reference to the medium-sized drink at Starbucks.

“I think there’s something in there for everyone to dislike,” King told his fellow committee members.

Sure enough, some labor unions in Maine didn’t think King’s talk of “entitlement reforms” were so grand. But more on that later.

One of the biggest issues facing the committee is what to do with the sequestration budget cuts, which are $1.2 trillion in mandatory spending reductions imposed over 10 years. King proposed replacing roughly one-half of the remaining cuts, or $455 billion worth, through fiscal year 2021 while still reducing the federal deficit by the same amount.

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