Durbin Discusses Stopgap Spending Bill

The House passed another temporary spending bill Tuesday to keep the government operating. That's the sixth since the fiscal year began in October — and the second this month. The Senate is expected to pass the bill this week. Congress will then have three weeks to avoid a government shutdown. Robert Siegel talks with Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, about the current state of budget negotiations.

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It's funding by stopgap. Another short-term spending bill to keep the government operating passed the House yesterday. That would be its sixth temporary funding measure since the fiscal year began in October. The Senate is expected to pass the bill this week.

Congress will then have three weeks, until April 8th, to avoid a dreaded government shutdown. But Republicans and Democrats remain divided over how deep to cut the budget.

And in here now to talk about all this is Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and assistant majority leader. He joins us from Capitol Hill. Welcome to the program once again.

Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): Thanks, good to be with you.

SIEGEL: Congress has passed multiple temporary spending bills for this fiscal year, which we're almost halfway through. Are we actually any closer to getting the current budget approved?

Sen. DURBIN: Well, no. This is probably our last chance. Many of us are sick and tired of these two and three week extensions. It's no way to run a government. It's certainly no way to run a country. And it invites a lot of misuse and waste of federal funds.

SIEGEL: But the brevity of these measures seems to be proportional to the small degree of agreement there is between Democrats and Republicans in Congress about what to cut.

Sen. DURBIN: We learned something with each of these intervals. We learned during the last that the House Republican budget, with $100 billion in cuts, was not going to pass in the United States Senate. We learned at the same time that the Senate Democratic alternative wouldn't pass, either.

And so we at least have a starting point in terms of our lack of success. I hope that it leads to a more fruitful discussion.

SIEGEL: Why don't Democrats, who after all still hold the Senate majority and hold the White House, why doesn't your party start the discussion of entitlement cuts with, say, what people regard as the simplest one to deal with, Social Security, a plan that would defer benefits, curb the growth of benefits and increase Social Security tax revenues? When are you going to do that?

Sen. DURBIN: I want to make two points. First, we are a nominal majority. An actual majority in the Senate doesn't get anything done. It takes 60 votes, and we have 53. So when it comes to controlling our fate, we are dependent on bipartisan cooperation in the Senate.

Second, the Social Security system, as it currently exists, is one of the most solvent funds in our government. And those who want to turn the spotlight on Social Security I hope are doing it with the best of intentions and not confusing the obvious. Social Security is...

SIEGEL: Well, I (unintelligible) seems easier that Medicare. It seems a lot easier than Medicare or Medicaid, is why I've suggested Social Security.

Sen. DURBIN: Oh, of course it's easier. I mean, I always say that dealing with Social Security and its future is simple math. Medicare is advanced calculus because we're dealing with health care costs and a lot of baby boomers are going to show up and need expensive health care.

But the point I want to make is when they keep banging away at Social Security, remember what we did in 1983 has worked with the benefits and revenues that we took into consideration, and it is solvent, with every payment as promised to 2037.

Should we be concerned beyond that? You bet. But let's not mix it up with today's deficit issue.

SIEGEL: But is what we're seeing in Washington now, the two sides, doing an (unintelligible). Let me hear what you have to say about these really unpopular cuts that might have to be made in the future about Medicare and Medicaid. And after you say something, then I'll come back at you and give my rebuttal. And we're not getting anybody to put their cards on the table.

Sen. DURBIN: Ah, but there's hope, and the hope comes down to this: There are six of us, three Democrats and three Republican senators, sitting down in a room outside of the glare of the television cameras and the microphones, trying to work out a bipartisan approach to this, realizing we can't get it done in a matter of months or weeks. It's going to take years, and it's going to take a process that is truly bipartisan. I've got my fingers crossed that we'll get this done.

SIEGEL: And just one more point. With the six senators who are working quietly, would they benefit from the president remaining quiet, or should he take a leadership role in this discussion?

Sen. DURBIN: The president is leading. He is following at least what we're doing in theory. We haven't announced our agreement because we don't have one. But I think if we have the right approach that we can gather not only bipartisan support in the Senate but also the White House.

SIEGEL: Senator Durbin, thank you so much for talking with us once again.

Sen. DURBIN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and assistant majority leader. He's the Democratic whip.

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