Budget Cuts Head To Latest Showdown

Democrats and Republicans have until Friday, April 8, to reach an agreement on funding the federal government through the rest of the fiscal year — or else it will shut down. Host Scott Simon talks with Sen. Tom Coburn about the federal stopgap funding measure.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Democrats and Republicans have until just a little under a week - Friday, April 8 - to reach an agreement on funding the federal government through the rest of the fiscal year or it will shut down. Of course, the federal government has already been operating under a series of stopgap funding measures - continuing resolutions as they're called - for the past six months.

We're joined now by Dr. Tom Coburn, senator from Oklahoma. He was one of the Republican members of President Obama's deficit reduction commission. Senator Coburn joins us from his office in Washington, D.C. Senator, thanks so much for being with us.

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): Scott, it's great to be with you.

SIMON: Vice President Biden says that on that side of the Hill they've come up with $33 billion worth of cuts in this year's budget. And there is, to state the obvious, $30 billion worth of difference between that figure and the $61 billion that was approved by the House last month.

Mr. COBURN: Well, you've already cut $10 billion essentially in what the two pieces have been passed and the continuous resolution. So, if you were to take the original House bill and take the $10 billion, you'd have to cut 51. And if they're talking about 33, that's 18 difference. My position would take it and let's get on to solving the other bigger problems that we have.

SIMON: Like what?

Mr. COBURN: We were in a downward spiral in terms of our obligations and our cash flow. Our debt is sinking our nation. And if we're going to be creating jobs and we have to send a signal to the world financial community that we are serious about our problems, otherwise our interest rates are going to go through the roof.

SIMON: And that kind of signal would be sent by significantly cutting the federal budget.

Mr. COBURN: Yeah, and not just in discretionary. We can't take all of this from a small portion of the discretionary. You know, we have unsustainable Social Security, unsustainable Medicaid, unsustainable Medicare, unsustainable defense department. We have to be about relooking at the whole role of government. The question is at what speed and can we buy enough time to fix our problems.

Otherwise, people are not going to loan us money, the interest rates are going to become like grease, and some of the others, and then we're going to have make much more severe cuts. Our country is facing some pain and the question is, is do we do this in a way where we protect our most precious assets - our people - and do it in a way that everybody has to participate, or do we wait until we have to and then we hurt everybody a great deal more?

SIMON: Reading between the lines, it sounds, senator, as if you think you can reach an agreement over the next week.

Mr. COBURN: Well, my hope is, you know, as a physician, you know, what you don't want to do is treat symptoms; you want to treat real disease. And when you treat symptoms, all you do is cover up the disease. And so if we allow real politics the next election cycle to cover up what the real disease is, we would have done a very big disservice to the American people.

And so that's why I voted for the deficit commission. There's a lot of stuff in there I didn't like, but the realization is everybody has to give, and if we don't do that, we will have betrayed the people that sent us up here.

SIMON: Let me ask you about a debate that was brought to my attention this week. You're Oklahoma, I think can fairly be identified as a farming state. You're opposed to ethanol subsidies.

Mr. COBURN: Well, I'm specifically opposed to the ethanol blending credit, which is just one of the subsidies that we give for ethanol.

SIMON: This has opposed up, as I don't have to tell you, a pointed disagreement with Grover Norquist and his group, Americans for Tax Reform.

Mr. COBURN: I'm not sure that they add anything positive to the debate today being dogmatic in their position that if you don't give the most profitable companies in this country - who, by the way, sent me a letter saying they don't want this money - that we're going to send them $5.9 billion and call that a tax increase by not sending them money that they're not earning, to me, seems ridiculous and the average American's going to look at that and say that's stupid.

SIMON: This gets fairly intricate but we're talking about the 45 cent-per-gallon ethanol tax credit.

Mr. COBURN: For blending.

SIMON: Yeah, for blending ethanol, which I think difficult to understand but I think the argument that Mr. Norquist and others are making is this represents a tax increase.

Mr. COBURN: He's saying it's a tax increase. If we take away this - which they don't agree with the blending credit either - but if we don't cut somebody's taxes somewhere else, I am a heretic and I no longer am a conservative Republican who believes in limited government.

SIMON: And as far as you're concerned, they're...

Mr. COBURN: I think it's background noise and it doesn't play for what the real problems are in front of us.

SIMON: Senator Tom Coburn, Republican from Oklahoma. Thanks so much, senator.

Mr. COBURN: Scott, good to be with you.

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