Funding Battle Continues As Shutdown Is Averted

Facing a short-term extension of funding for the federal budget, guest host Lynn Neary talks with Rep. Frank Guinta (R-NH) and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA) about the debate over federal government funding measures and the prospect of a government shutdown.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary, in for Liane Hansen.

Tomorrow, it's back to business as usual for the federal government. A shutdown has been averted for now. Last week, President Obama signed a continuing resolution, or a short-term budget, that will fund the government for another 14 days. By March 18th, the Republican-controlled House and the majority Democratic Senate will have to pass another budget for the president to sign. Otherwise, the government will run out of money.

Top Democrats and some Republicans are opposed to funding the government two weeks at a time, but Majority Leader John Boehner says the House will use every minute available to negotiate a budget deal.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio, Speaker of the House): You know, if you give Congress four weeks, guess what? They'll take four weeks. You give them six weeks, they'll take six weeks. Now, we've got two weeks. Let's get the job done.

NEARY: Today, we're going to hear perspectives from two members of Congress. First, to congressman Frank Guinta of New Hampshire. He's a freshman member of Congress, a Republican, who was elected with strong support from the Tea Party. He sits on the House Budget Committee.

Congressman Guinta joins us from his office in Manchester, New Hampshire. Good to have you with us, congressman.

Representative FRANK GUINTA (Republican, New Hampshire): Oh, thank you so much for having me.

NEARY: Now, the House budget committee chairman, Paul Ryan, your Republican colleague, says that he could see Congress passing a series of short-term funding measures, and you voted for this two-week continuing resolution. But why continue to fund the government for just two weeks at a time? It sort of leaves open the threat that the government may shut down. Is that really a good way to go about doing business?

Mr. GUINTA: Well, our first preference would have been to have the continuing resolution through the course of this fiscal year. And that's the proposal we sent to the Senate. Unfortunately, they did not want to agree with our proposal. And they came back with an alternative, which is a short-term - two-week - CR.

I agree with you; what we should be focusing on is trying to identify a long-term CR. I'm committed to doing that. We don't want to shut the government down. The government has a role to play. I believe it should be limited, and also effective and efficient.

NEARY: Well, what programs have you targeted for cuts?

Mr. GUINTA: Well, what I'm looking at is just trying to reduce the overall expenditure at the federal level because of the, you know, $1.5 trillion deficit we have, and the $14 trillion long-term debt. These are challenging decisions that we have to make; there's no question about it. But I think we need to be very forthright with the people in New Hampshire and the nation, that at the federal level, we just cannot sustain the level of spending.

NEARY: Let me ask you about some things that you voted for. You voted to continue a subsidy for heating bills, which in a state like yours - in New Hampshire - is incredibly important. But can't every member of Congress find a program equally important to their constituents, and isn't that why you really have to find some compromise here? Isn't that how Congress works?

Mr. GUINTA: Well, you're right. And there are many people who have projects or programs that they want to eliminate or save. But that is part of the process. So you know, in my case, it was vitally important to have $50 million in additional revenue for the remainder of the winter, for New England and New Hampshire. It doesn't make sense to hurt the most vulnerable in our communities when we are trying to be smart in reducing the overall financial federal fiscal challenges.

NEARY: You think some of the new members of Congress like yourself, who have run with the backing of the Tea Party, are going to be able to compromise?

Mr. GUINTA: Well, that's to be determined. You know, we have a very high expectation of doing the right thing, and trying to be above the politics of it all. But I do feel that if you come to the table honestly, with real solutions, there will be an opportunity to find the common ground that is necessary to meet our goals and objectives.

NEARY: Well, the prospect of a government shutdown does still loom. And if that happens, who gets the blame for it?

Mr. GUINTA: Well, you know, I hope it doesn't happen because I don't think that in the long run, that is the best solution for the challenges we have. So I'm not going to engage in who would be to blame. What I would rather engage in is stating: I'm at the table; I'm willing to work with Republicans and Democrats and the administration to find a solution. And I think that is our obligation.

NEARY: Republican congressman Frank Guinta from New Hampshire. Good talking with you. Thank you, congressman.

Mr. GUINTA: It is my pleasure.

NEARY: Congressman Xavier Becerra is a Democrat from Los Angeles. He's vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and was also a member of President Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Congressman, thanks for joining us.

Representative XAVIER BECERRA (Democrat, California, Vice Chairman, Democratic Caucus): Lynn, great to be with you.

NEARY: Now, you voted against this two-week funding measure. Why?

Mr. BECERRA: Whether it's the largest economy in the world or the smallest business in my district in Los Angeles, you don't run a budget on a two-week time frame. It just doesn't make sense, and this is not why the American people elected us. We're here to try to solve some big problems. And in terms of the deficit, you have to have long-term vision. And this is not long-term vision when you take 218 kids out of Head Start so you can cut deficits caused by unfunded wars and very, very bad tax policy that helped very wealthy folks.

NEARY: If Congress had not passed this budget, the federal government would have shut down. Why risk that?

Mr. BECERRA: I'm not sure why Republicans would risk shutting down the government and play this game of Russian roulette, knowing that if, indeed, people were to look at what they were proposing in these cuts that really just destroy very important programs for seniors and our children and our working families, that they would object. But that's where we are.

NEARY: You would concede, however, that there is a big problem with the federal deficit.

Mr. BECERRA: Absolutely, but the federal deficit wasn't caused by firefighters who are now going to be laid off as a result of the Republican-proposed budget -or by children, as I mentioned, on the Head Start program. It was caused because we overspent in two wars, which have never been paid for. We overspent in providing tax earmarks to very wealthy companies and individuals. And the result of that is that today, Republicans are telling us that the only way to balance the books is to cut very essential services for people who work very hard.

NEARY: Well, how do you balance the budget then?

Mr. BECERRA: You go after those sacred cows, those fat cats that in the fiscal commission that I served on last year, we identified. Remember that the tax earmarks that have been identified dwarf any spending earmarks that we hear so much about. The money that goes to Head Start doesn't even show up on the radar screen when it comes to the money that goes to corporations to essentially, get tax breaks to ship jobs overseas.

I think you sit down and you figure out where you can do this without endangering the economic recovery that we're now seeing, without endangering jobs. And quite honestly, it should be a budget that helps stimulate more job growth.

NEARY: Well, I have to say, talking to you, that I'm feeling as though we're going to be in the same place two weeks from now. In other words, two weeks from now, once again, there's going to be the threat of a federal government shutdown.

Mr. BECERRA: You know, Lynn, the only people who have seriously talked about shutting the government down are Newt Gingrich, and about a dozen of my House Republican colleagues. Most other folks continue to talk about ways to get us moving forward. So I don't think that there's a lot of desire on the part of most people to see the government, government services close down.

And so I don't think we're going to get there, Lynn. But if we do, it will be because there's some folks who think it's better to play Russian roulette with the American public than try to get a sensible budget in place.

NEARY: Congressman Xavier Becerra is a Democrat from Los Angeles, and he spoke with us from his office. Thanks for being with us, congressman.

Mr. BECERRA: Lynn, thank you.

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