Gang Of Six Works Toward Budget Compromise

Guests

Chris Cillizza, Washington Post columnist
Mara Liasson, national political correspondent, NPR
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.

The budget impasse continues on Capitol Hill with divisions in both parties. Six senators, though, are working on a bipartisan compromise. Senators Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), two of the six, talk about their plans.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Time's up in the budget battle, Dems back home in Indiana, and the Donald's certificate snafu. It's Wednesday and time for a birther edition of the Political Junkie.

President RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

Vice President WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?

Senator BARRY GOLDWATER (Republican, Arizona): Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

Senator LLOYD BENTSEN (Democrat, Texas): Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

President RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

Former Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): Lipstick.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.

(Soundbite of scream)

CONAN: Political Junkie Ken Rudin is away on assignment. It takes two to fill in. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson and Chris Cillizza, who writes The Fix column for the Washington Post, join us to recap the week in politics, when maybe, kinda presidential contender Donald Trump demands the president's birth certificate but can't find his own, Mike Huckabee and Haley Barbour speak kindly of each other, which may suggest one of them won't run, the president gets it from all sides on Libya, Indiana Democrats end their self-imposed exile in Illinois, the Tea Party has some issues in upstate New York, and we'll remember Geraldine Ferraro.

In a few minutes, we'll focus on the budget with two senators, Republican Saxby Chambliss and Democrat Mark Warner. Democrats, would you be willing to give ground on Social Security? Republicans, would you be willing to raise taxes? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, has the Arab spring put the Israeli-Palestinian dispute on the back burner? But first, Mara Liasson and Chris Cillizza join us here in Studio 3A. Thanks to you both for being here.

Mr. CHRIS CILLIZZA (Columnist, Washington Post): Thanks...

MARA LIASSON: Nice to be here.

CONAN: And Mara, it looked like people were lining up to criticize the president's speech on Libya.

LIASSON: Well, they were lining up. A lot of potential Republican candidates were trying to find ways to criticize him, but now that he's given the speech, the critique kind of boils down to he didn't answer all the questions, didn't explain exactly what the endgame would be. He should've gone earlier. He should've spoken earlier.

You know, this is a difficult, complicated thing. The public is split about this military effort. But I think that if it succeeds, if somehow or other Gadhafi is either completely isolated and neutralized or forced out of power, this will not become a huge political problem for the president.

CONAN: Well, among those lining up to be critical was the president's opponent the last time around, Senator John McCain, now the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and he was not impressed.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): And he mentioned a couple of times that Gadhafi must step down, and then he made a very puzzling comment, and that was: Regime change by force would be a mistake. Gadhafi must have been somewhat comforted by that.

CONAN: And Chris Cillizza, this is the Senator McCain who wanted him to go earlier.

Mr. CILLIZZA: Right. Look, Senator McCain is articulating the primary Republican criticism of President Obama's approach to Libya, which is not clearly defining the mission, why we are there, why we have intervened militarily.

Is it to protect civilians or is it to remove Gadhafi? Now, the president himself has been a little bit vague on this topic. I would say, though, to Mara's point: This is not easy ground to put into a political context.

You saw people criticize the president for his approach. Clearly, some of that's partisanship. Some of it's just frankly disagreement. But you saw the danger in it with Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who, by all accounts, we expect to run for president.

He was quoted as saying he thought we should initially enforce a no-fly zone. Then it was that we should not, once the president did so. Gingrich himself, who does not like to admit he is ever wrong, had to say there were some contradictions within my position.

This is not easy. Foreign policy is not as easy as domestic policy when it comes to politics.

LIASSON: Yeah, and I think that's why you saw most of the criticism on what I would call the kind of easy criticisms: You should've spoken early. You should've gone earlier.

CONAN: Should've consulted Congress.

LIASSON: Yeah, yeah, you should've consulted Congress. Those to me are criticisms that the White House doesn't have to worry about at all. If there was real ideological opposition to this, either we should be in there, boots on the ground, taking Gadhafi out, or we shouldn't be in there at all, that's a real debate.

This is more carping from the sidelines, I think.

Mr. CILLIZZA: And I would add, just quickly, another thing I don't think the president needs to worry terribly about politically is the carping from the left. You've seen people like Dennis Kucinich from Ohio say that, you know, that this is the wrong war, we shouldn't be here, we should be...

CONAN: Not a dime for...

Mr. CILLIZZA: Exactly. We've heard this again and again. We heard it, when the president announced more troops to Afghanistan, from the left, essentially saying: We will find someone to run against him. Well, that someone has yet to emerge. And the only someones who were ever mentioned, people like Russ Feingold, the former Wisconsin senator, and Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and presidential candidate, neither of them have expressed any interest.

So again, I think this is much ado about not all that much when it comes to the political ramifications.

CONAN: And we're going to be talking about the greater issue of the budget in a few minutes with two senators, one Republican, one Democrat. But Mara, on timing, the continuing resolution runs out at the end of next week. Everybody says this is the last one. Of course, they said that the last time too. But this time they seem to mean it.

LIASSON: Well, this is really an extraordinary situation. They bought themselves a little bit more time, until April 8th, next Friday, and it seemed two things are happening.

The rhetoric is getting more polarized, and the atmospherics seem like: Ooh, government is going to shut down, they can't bridge these gaps, they're saying horrible things about each other.

But beneath the surface, interesting things are happening, like in an unofficial way House Republican leaders are reaching out to conservative Democrats in the House to see if they could put together a coalition.

Remember, the last time a CR, temporary spending measure, came up, John Boehner, the speaker, lost 54 Republicans. If he loses more - the more Republicans he loses, the more Democrat votes he needs. In order to get them, he has to craft a different kind of package, less pure, fewer policy riders, maybe even smaller numbers.

CONAN: Policy riders, the things like defund Planned Parenthood.

LIASSON: Things like funding Planned Parenthood or NPR. But - so that's kind of interesting. Ooh, stirrings of bipartisanship while they're carping at each other up on the surface.

One other thing that I think is really interesting is that originally John Boehner's number was in the low 30s. That was what he started with.

CONAN: 30 billion dollars.

LIASSON: 31 billion dollars in cuts for this, the remainder of this year. He got overrun by his ground troops. The Tea Party freshmen didn't want to vote for that, and they made it much higher.

But it sounds like what the Democrats are now talking about being willing to accept is something like the original John Boehner number. So the irony is, here you have a speaker whose actual - this might end up being the John Boehner budget, a great moment of triumph for him, but his own troops won't let him go there and get that.

CONAN: And Chris Cillizza, he's being - his feet are being held to the first by what I think was described in your paper this morning as the perfectionist wing of the Republican Party.

Mr. CILLIZZA: And this is always the difficulty. You know, when Republicans were celebrating their 63-seat pickup and the majority of the House last November, if you talked to smart Republican strategists, they were celebrating too, but it was a little less boisterous because they knew the roots of what got them there: this excitement, this passion, which wasn't exclusively contained within the Tea Party, but clearly the Tea Party was the bulk of it, that that would come back to bite them in some meaningful way.

Here we are, we're roughly a week, eight days away, nine days away from the deadline for the government to run out of money. There's a large group of Tea Party people coming to Washington tomorrow to voice their displeasure with any sort of compromise to be made by Republican leaders.

And I do think that - to Mara's point - the fact that John Boehner and other Republican leaders are reaching out to conservative Democrats, people like Heath Schuler in North Carolina, speaks to the fact that they do not believe, or they are very nervous about the politics of a government shutdown.

They hearken back to 1995, when it was clearly a win for Bill Clinton and a loss for Newt Gingrich and the Republican Party. They do not want that, and they want that even less than they want the scorn of the Tea Party for making a deal with Democrats.

LIASSON: You know, and one other points about who gets the blame, which has taken up, you know, reams of ink, or pixels, whatever we want to call it, is that yes, things are different. It's not exactly the same. Newt Gingrich isn't John Boehner.

But passing a budget is the number one, fundamental responsibility of Congress, not the president. In other words, what is more fundamentally Congress's job than passing a budget?

CONAN: Well, some might say, Mara, even more fundamentally, raising the debt limit.

LIASSON: Or raising the debt limit. We haven't even gotten to that yet. We have to get through the CR first.

CONAN: And Senator Rubio, speaking of the Tea Party, writes an editorial in the Wall Street Journal to say he's not going to vote, under any circumstances, for that unless he gets A, B, C and D, and I think they have to name the new ballpark in Miami after him.

LIASSON: Yes. Well, that was part of the great Rubio coming-out party, which I thought was interesting because I didn't expect it to happen this soon. I expected it to happen at some point.

He was following the well-worn playbook of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, celebrity Senate freshmen who come in, keep their nose to the grindstone, you know, stay below the radar, you know, smart, savvy, you know, play their cards right. But he came out fairly early, and he has done a couple of things.

One, he has said three different versions of whether or not he would consider to be the vice presidential candidate, which every Republican thinks he's going to be. I don't want to do it, maybe I do.

But the things that he's requiring for his vote on the debt limit, some of them are pretty easy to do, and also his vote isn't really going to be needed.

CONAN: Unless he puts a hold on it, but that's another issue. Sad news to report from this past weekend. Geraldine Ferraro died of blood cancer at the age of 75, the three-term congresswoman from Queens, the first woman to run for vice president of the United States in 1984, the first woman on a major party ticket to do so.

At the nominating convention in San Francisco, she quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.

Representative GERALDINE FERRARO (Democrat, New York): Occasionally in life there are moments which cannot be completely explained by words. Their meaning can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart. Tonight is such a moment for me.

(Soundbite of applause)

Rep. FERRARO: My heart is filled with pride. My fellow citizens, I proudly accept your nomination for vice president of the United States.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: And Chris Cillizza, that ticket went on to get schlonged(ph) at the polls, but that's a historic moment.

Mr. CILLIZZA: Absolutely historic moment, Neal, but as you point out, lost 49 states. The only state that that ticket won, which was led by Walter Mondale, was his home state of Minnesota. I would say it was historic in another way, not just that Geraldine was the first woman to be on a major party ticket, but my father, my Italian father, would be - would not be happy if I did not mention she was the first Italian-American also to be on a major party ticket.

So groundbreaking in its way, but one fascinating tidbit: We still don't have a woman president, and we had a female, obviously, nominee, with Hillary Clinton, and she lost the nomination.

LIASSON: Just in terms of the profound effect that Ferraro's nomination had on politics and journalism, I talked to somebody who worked for Ferraro, later became a journalist. She said she was on the Hart plane, the Mondale plane. Ninety percent of the reporters, all the agents, all the staff were men.

Three weeks after Ferraro was nominated, she was on her plane. The place was filled with female reporters: Cokie Roberts, Ellen Goodman, Maureen Dowd. It had a transforming effect for female reporters and females interested in politics in general.

CONAN: Mara Liasson and Chris Cillizza are our guest junkies today. Ken Rudin's away. Up next, a battle on the budget. Senator Saxby Chambliss and Mark Warner, a Republican and a Democrat, hope to find common ground on spending. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Today a Ken-less edition of the Political Junkie, Ken Rudin away on assignment. Here to fill those two very big shoes are NPR political correspondent Mara Liasson and Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza.

Among the big issues in Washington this week, government spending and the deficit. The budget impasse continues on Capitol Hill with divisions in both parties in the House. Some moderate Blue Dog Democrats appear willing to compromise with the Republican majority, but that very majority is having trouble appeasing some of its members, the conservative flank of House Republicans preparing to release its own plan.

New York Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer taunted Speaker John Boehner about the infighting within the GOP.

Senator CHUCK SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): They think compromise is a dirty word. They think taking any steps to avert a shutdown would mean being the first to blink. So Speaker Boehner is caught between a shutdown and a hard place.

CONAN: If there's no budget agreement by next Friday, April 8th, the federal government, at least parts of it, would shut down. Work continues in both houses on a spending bill. There's talk of compromise, though, on long-term budget issues in the Senate, where a group of six senators is preparing its own plan to tackle the growing deficit. We'll talk with them, two of them, in just a moment.

We want to hear from Republicans and Democrats in the audience. Democrats, would you be willing to give ground on Social Security? Republicans, would you be willing to raise taxes? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we go to the studio at Capitol Hill, and Senator Saxby Chambliss is with us. He's a Republican from Georgia, one of the so-called gang of six. Senator Chambliss, nice of you to be with us.

And also there is Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia. And Senator Warner, good of you to be with us as well.

Senator SAXBY CHAMBLISS (Republican, Georgia): Thanks, Neal, good to be with you.

CONAN: And before I turn you over to Chris and Mara, just a question on the timing of the continuing resolution. I know you're talking about longer-term issues, but is this going to get done by next Friday night?

Sen. CHAMBLISS: Well, I don't think anybody wants to shut down the government, Neal. That's not the purpose of the negotiations from either side. But this is very tough business. And I'm not sure what the outcome's going to be. Mark and I are not involved in those negotiations.

But Speaker Boehner and Leader Reid are the two that are trying to come up with some sort of common ground. We certainly hope they get there so that we can move on. But there are certain differences of opinion that obviously they're having a hard time getting to an agreement on.

Senator MARK WARNER (Democrat, Virginia): And Neal, I would just add that I think it shows the importance of what Saxby and I and the others are trying to do because while there's real differences between what the Republicans are looking for and the Democrats are looking for, we're still only talking about a very small amount compared to this year's national deficit, this current year's deficit, and we're only debating about cuts on the domestic discretionary side.

You just can't get there. That's only 12 percent of our federal spending. So the sooner we can have a broader long-term plan in place, I think it can hopefully then get us out of this kind of box we're in.

LIASSON: Well, Senators Chambliss and Warner, I'm wondering - this is Mara Liasson here - I'm wondering if you think that the difficulty that the two sides are having talking about this tiny little slice of this, the remainder of this year's budget, which barely affects the deficit, does that suggest that it would be harder for you to do the big kind of global grand bargain that you're talking about, or maybe, in some perverse way, easier?

Sen. WARNER: I think it'd be actually easier. I think the idea of everybody having some skin in the game so we're not just pitting one segment of programs - I think American, the American people will do their part, and I think the elected officials, we need to do our part, but we need to put everything on the table.

Sen. CHAMBLISS: I would agree with that from the standpoint of the House is doing some of our work for us because they're addressing the current year's budget. We're talking about the next 10 years. And if they reduce that baseline over the next few months, then I think that helps us.

But also I would say that the fact that the leadership is having a hard time getting together on this continuing resolution just mirrors the difficulty that Mark and I and our four colleagues are having agreeing to a long-term resolution of what is a truly, truly complex issue. But there's no more important issue either.

LIASSON: Well, where are you guys right now? How far have you gotten? You said it shows how difficult it is for even you to come to agreement. But where are you in that effort?

Sen. CHAMBLISS: Well, I think it's safe to say that we're making progress. But you have to remember that the debt commission report, which is certainly the foundation of the discussions that we're having right now, addresses the issue of both the annual deficit and the long-term debt by saying that you can't do this with only reduction in discretionary spending, as Mark alluded to. That's 12 percent of the budget. That's non-defense spending.

You've got to look at every federal agency. You've got to put defense spending on the table, and that's difficult for Republicans and Democrats to do, particularly in the light of what's going on in the world right now.

CONAN: And do you have the revenue enhancements on the table as well?

Sen. CHAMBLISS: Well, in addition to the spending side, you've got to look at entitlements. You've got to look at Social Security and Medicare. That's the old Willie Horton story. That's where the money is, and then certainly...

CONAN: I think you meant Willie Sutton, not Willie Horton.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. CHAMBLISS: Willie Sutton, you're right.

Sen. WARNER: You just saw a press secretary keel over...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. CHAMBLISS: But you've got to look at the revenue side too. It's going to take all three components coming together. They have to come together at the exact same time, and they have to be done under the same umbrella, and that is very, very difficult.

Sen. WARNER: And I would simply - let me just add to that, that you've got to not only get substantive agreement, but as a relative newcomer to the Senate, you've got to have a process that allows you to kind of move all this simultaneously so that you do have this time when people can step up and have -everybody can kind of link arms and maybe jump together. And the other piece, I think, that if we can do this...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. WARNER: Well, I mean, I think it's true (unintelligible) there will be something there where everybody will have to have some shared pain, and it was well-shared gain, but if we do this beyond the tax reform, beyond the spending cutting, what we will be accomplishing as well will be I think what the third leg of the stool is. It will kind of give the confidence that we and the country are getting our act together. And I think that will help promote economic growth, and promoting economic growth will also help us on driving down the debt and deficit.

CONAN: Chris Cillizza?

Mr. CILLIZZA: Senators, both in the short-term, this April 8th deadline, as well as the longer-term negotiations and discussions you're talking about, what's the role the president should play, and what's the role he has played? Does he need to be more of a force, as you said, Senator Warner, to make sure everyone has skin in the game, the White House included?

Sen. WARNER: Well, here's what I think. I think that there will be the appropriate time, and I think we need to go ahead and show that there's a framework here. And then I can understand from a political process standpoint, the president comes together before there's some sense of a bipartisan agreement.

I think there'll be at least some folks who will then, maybe from the House, who would find that as a starting point rather than as a, you know, more towards an end point.

I think that we've got to take some arrows first, and then I think - I definitely think the White House, and I think the speaker will - and others will, I hope, move forward together.

Sen. CHAMBLISS: And let's make no mistake about it: None of us think that we're going to solve this alone. We've got to have the White House involved at some point.

We've also got to have the House involved. There's some good ideas that can come out of the White House. There's some bright minds in the House that need to be involved in solving what we think is the issue of our time.

So there will the right moment. We can't dictate to the White House when they get involved, but at some point they've got to be.

CONAN: And we'll get to calls in just a second. But you said the importance of the House of Representatives, and nobody's going to dispute that, but your proposals are at least roughly based on the presidential commission's findings.

Every member of the House of Representatives from the Republican side who was on that commission voted against that. What makes you think they would vote for something like it now?

Sen. CHAMBLISS: Well, here's what I think. I think the leadership on the House side, from Speaker Boehner all the way down, understands the magnitude of the problem.

I've had conversations with budget chairman Paul Ryan, and I know Paul understands it, and he's going to be coming forward with a budget that addresses every one of the issues that we've just talked about.

He not only thinks spending has to be under control, but his budget is certainly going to reflect major reform of the entitlement programs, and that is a giant step in the right direction. And I think if you ask Paul why he voted against the debt commission report, he would tell you it didn't go far enough.

So I think there's still the opportunity for common ground, and we look forward to a dialogue with them at some point. Obviously we have to agree among ourselves first before we even throw out ideas to the House

Sen. WARNER: And I would add - I would simply add that you had, clearly, some of the House Republicans say it didn't go far enough. You had Democrats who are concerned that there weren't enough revenues.

I mean, I think if we can find a framework here, this problem is so enormous -$14 trillion in debt. Every day that we fail to act, we add $4 billion with a B to that number. And this plan that we're talking about isn't going to finally get us there entirely either.

I mean, the deficit commission and debt commission, you know, only in effect took four trillion off of that, but that's still a giant step in the right direction and puts us on a sustainable run rate going forward.

And we have a certain of flexibility that the Greeces and the Irelands and increasingly the Portugals don't, as the world's largest economy, as the reserve currency for the world. But if we don't act and start at least taking that step forward, then we could be in those countries' circumstances as well.

And that's why the time is echoing what Saxby (unintelligible) to say he's been, you know, a wonderful partner on this and has stepped up in so many ways. I'm trying to match that stepping-up, and you know, we feel like this is the issue of our time.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on this. We'll go to Jean. Jean with us from Norfolk in Virginia, who identifies herself as a Republican.

JEAN (Caller): Yes. Well, at least a conservative, a staunch conservative. And I have to say I don't like the idea of raising taxes, but both from what I believe and what I think I understand is coming from Tea Party and other staunch conservatives, that kind of a pill might be made a lot easier to swallow if there could also be safeguards built in which the people knew that these additional tax revenues or frankly all of their tax revenues were not going to be spent on fraud, just other programs to root out fraud in the social benefits system, to make sure that it's not just a simple handout to people who refuse to invest in the system itself.

CONAN: And in terms of Social Security, is that what you're talking about?

JEAN: Social Security - Social Security disability being a particular one. Any kind of program for people - what we used to call welfare.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much. And, well, Senator Chambliss, that comes from the Republican side. Willing to consider tax increases. You've talked about closing loopholes as the commission did. Do you think that's going to be sellable if compromise comes on other issues?

Sen. CHAMBLISS: Well, Jean's question is very appropriate, and I agree with you, Jean. I'm not in favor of raising of taxes either, and that's not what we're talking about in our proposal. We're talking about a major reform of the tax code by the elimination of deductions that move us in the direction of, number one, lowering personal tax rates, lowering the corporate tax rate to make us more competitive in the international market, and at the same time, as we've always done, we - when we lower tax rates, we generate more in revenues. That happened in '86 with the Reagan plan, happened following the 2001 Bush plan. So we know that's going to happen.

The question is what do you with that money that's generated from an increase in revenues by virtue of the elimination of certain deductions and whatnot. Are we going to eliminate the deduction for mortgage interest? No. That won't happen. Are we going to eliminate a charitable deduction? Probably not. I don't think we should.

But when you look at the increase in the revenues and as to what you're going to do with it, the second part of your question becomes even vitally more important. We need to make sure that any increase in revenues goes, number one, to reduce tax rates, that I just alluded to, and then secondly, some part of that has to go reduce the debt. That's how we're going to attack this $14 trillion massive debt out there.

And your point of the fact that we need to make sure that Congress doesn't get its hands on this money, number one. And then secondly, to make sure that we also close those loopholes of waste, fraud and abuse that are prevalent in not only various programs that we have but in various agencies that we have. So you've hit the real issue that we're struggling to deal with right now.

CONAN: Jean, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JEAN: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Senators Saxby Chambliss and Mark Warner. Mara Liasson and Chris Cillizza are with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we'll go to the other side of the caller aisle, and Bill is calling us from Kansas on the Democratic line.

BILL (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon to you.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

Sen. WARNER: Good afternoon.

BILL: Well, to the point that I know that all programs have to be cut. I understand that. I mean, it's just a rationale that has to be there. I hate to think that all social programs are the only things that have to be cut, but we have to focus on the revenue side.

As the good senator said, we need to reduce tax rates. We need to make sure that any tax rates that are reduced are also paid. So that the GEs of the world do not skate free, that the Caterpillars don't blackmail us by saying, well, we're just going to move out of the country.

CONAN: And, Bill, what are you willing to give on your side?

BILL: I know - I'm 61 years old. I know Medicaid is going to have to be reduced. Social Security is going to have to be adjusted somehow. So I have no issues with that as long as the Republicans are intent on focusing on making sure the revenue side - you got to pay for your bills with money.

CONAN: And Bill, I hear you. I just want to want to give Senator Warner a chance to respond to that. And Senator Warner, just on Social Security, you've heard senators Reid and Schumer say don't back down on Social Security.

Sen. WARNER: Well, couple points. One, certain changes around, as Bill I think has acknowledged, around Social Security, it's not a particular partisan fault. It's demographic changes. I mean 50 years ago there were 16 workers paying in Social Security taxes for every one recipient. Today there are three workers paying in for every one recipient. Within the next decade it will get down to two.

You've got to make sure that Social Security is going to exist, so whether you adjust the so-called cap in terms of moving up the amount of money back to what President Reagan and Speaker O'Neal said, full 90 percent of your taxable -your income is taxable in terms of Social Security benefits, whether you bump up over a 40-year process the age, from 67 to 69, which is again similar to what Reagan/O'Neill did, Reagan and O'Neill did.

But this time we're actually talking about leaving in an exemption so that if you have one of those jobs where you're out working all the time, delivering packages, whatever the case may be, you'd have an exemption so you wouldn't have that bump-up in age.

Whether you look at - and one of the things we've talked about, guaranteeing at the bottom, the bottom 20 percent, those folks who need Social Security the most, actually a guaranteed income - increase stream - I think those are things that actually are progressive in nature. And one of the last things - I hear the music coming - we got to make sure, though, that very clear there will be no Social Security dollars used to pay off the deficit. We've got to make Social Security sustainable for 75 years, and that is what we're working on.

CONAN: Our thanks to Senator Mark Warner, who you just heard, the Democrat from Virginia, and Senator Saxby Chambliss, the Republican from Georgia, members of the so-called Gang of Six. Our thanks as well to guest Junkies Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post and our own Mara Liasson. Ken returns next week. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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