Senators Ask Obama To Lead In Debt-Reduction Plan

Unless lawmakers reach an agreement on the federal budget, the government will shut down next Friday. Both parties hope a compromise could get them through September, the end of the fiscal year. Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, along with Republican Sen. Mike Johanns, recently sent a letter urging President Obama to engage in a discussion beyond the current funding debate. Linda Wertheimer asks Bennet why he wrote the letter.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

If lawmakers don't reach agreement on the federal budget, the government will shut down next Friday. Both parties hope a compromise could get them through September, the end of the fiscal year. Still, many lawmakers are thinking longer-term. Democratic Senator Michael Bennet, along with Republican Senator Mike Johanns, recently sent a letter to the president urging him to engage in a discussion beyond the current funding debate. It was signed by 32 Democrats and 32 Republicans.

I sat with Senator Bennet in his office and asked him why he wrote the letter.

Senator MICHAEL BENNET (Democrat, Colorado): I find the current debate so puzzling. I can't imagine what countries around the world or governments around the world think we're doing here, if we can't even keep our doors open. What I don't want to have lost is that we need to have this broader, comprehensive conversation. And the effort with the letter was an attempt to show, not just the White House, but everybody that there actually is a fairly broad base of support, at a general level, to move the conversation forward.

WERTHEIMER: You've called for the deficit discussion to include discretionary spending, which is what's being discussed now; entitlement changes and tax reform. So let's just go down the list. Entitlement changes: Are you talking about Social Security? Your leader, Harry Reid, has indicated he does not think that Social Security should be a part of the discussion.

Sen. BENNET: Let me say, first of all, in terms of approach, I don't want to draw lines. I don't think that's the place we need to be right now. I don't think the discussion about Social Security ought to result in any changes to Social Security that are for deficit reduction. Those changes ought to be for the preservation of Social Security. And the other conversations, whether it's around Medicare and Medicaid, or whether it's about our discretionary spending - both military and nonmilitary - that's where we should be having the deficit conversation.

WERTHEIMER: But your instinct is to rule everything in until you rule it out.

Sen. BENNET: Yes, exactly.

WERTHEIMER: What about the revenue side? Now, there is something that has been very, very difficult for the Congress or for any person running for political office to confront. Is there some way that you can change the tax code that would result in increased revenues without launching a giant attack on everybody who votes for it?

Sen. BENNET: I think the debt and deficit commission gives us really good guidance on this question. One of the things they observed is that on the income tax side of the ledger, we collect a trillion dollars in income tax every year. We spend, in what they call tax expenditures - which are things, deductions of one kind or another - we spend $1.2 trillion. I mean that doesn't make sense to anybody. We collect a trillion but we spend 1.2 trillion? Why go through the effort? So what they proposed was minimizing some of those deductions.

On the corporate side, there's similar lunacy, which is that we have one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world. But we collect a lot less revenue than most places do, because of all of the tax loopholes and credits, and all kinds of other things that probably are not much about public policy, but are a lot about, you know, who the last lobbyist was to attack the tax code.

So I think we can have a comprehensive conversation about taxes and tax reform, and in fact, I don't think we can balance this budget without doing that.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that what we're dealing with, though, here is a sort of a game of chicken between Republicans and Democrats, between the House and the Senate, between the president and the Tea Party? I mean, is it even possibly resolvable?

Sen. BENNET: Somebody asked me the other day whether this was a - back in the state - whether this was an elaborate political chess game. And I said that calling it that is giving it too much dignity. It's more like a political food fight.

You're right to say that in the Washington lens, on a daily basis, this is about the House versus the Senate, about Republicans versus Democrats, who won today, who lost today. That's of zero interest to the people in my town hall meetings.

WERTHEIMER: But how do you get past it?

Sen. BENNET: I believe that this Gang of Six is an excellent starting point, because...

WERTHEIMER: Six senators who are sitting down trying to figure out a plan?

Sen. BENNET: Right. And there are three Republicans. There are three Democrats. I figure the least somebody like me can do is endorse the work that they're doing. I really believe that we can get this past the Senate. And if we can pass it in the Senate, it creates an entirely different dynamic going forward.

WERTHEIMER: Senator Bennet, thank you very much.

Sen. BENNET: Thank you very much for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Democratic Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado.

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