Republican Sen. Corker Weighs In On Budget Debate

Renee Montagne talks with Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee about the current budget, the debt ceiling and federal spending in the long term. Earlier this year, he and Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri introduced a bill to cut mandatory and discretionary spending as a percentage of GDP from 24.7 percent to 20.6 percent.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep with Renee Montagne. Good morning.

President Obama and congressional leaders are no closer to agreeing on a budget for the fiscal year that is now more than half over.

President BARACK OBAMA: The only question is whether politics or ideology are going to get in the way of preventing a government shutdown.

INSKEEP: Which could come at the end of the week. That's the president speaking yesterday. Republicans are pressing for spending cuts. Democrats want to limit them.

But whatever the final deal, two senators have been telling us this debate over billions is a minor issue in a time of trillion-dollar deficits.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

First, we're going to hear from Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker. And we reached him in his office on Capitol Hill.

Good morning.

Senator BOB CORKER (Republican, Tennessee): Good morning. Good to be with you.

MONTAGNE: What is it going to take, Senator, in your opinion, to reach a deal to avoid a government shutdown, to get a budget for this year in place?

Sen. CORKER: Well, you know, those negotiations are being totally handled, right now, between leader Boehner and the White House, and Senator Reid. Most of us - most of the Senate and House actually aren't even involved in these negotiations. This is like two drops in the bucket. This is small ball. This is something obviously that has to be dealt with and everybody understands that. But the big picture, where the American people, in my opinion, are focused and should be focused is what we do over the next 10 years.

MONTAGNE: So what you're saying if it's small ball, you're saying there will be a compromise.

Sen. CORKER: Well, you know, I think that it's going to be resolved. Going to be a solution. But again, you know, it's really interesting. Here in Washington, everybody kind of focuses on the crisis at hand. And the fact is, obviously, this is important. In the scope of things, though, the real issue is for us to really redesign our entitlement programs, to look at overall spending in a comprehensive way.

Well, that's what - if you polled most of the senators here in the Senate, it's the bigger picture that really most all of us are working on today.

MONTAGNE: Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has put out what may be the most long-term proposal that is out there. Big changes to Medicare and Medicaid, within a proposal that would cut something like six-plus trillion dollars from the budget over the next decade.

Sen. CORKER: Right.

MONTAGNE: He's proposing that the government would contribute to paying for private insurance rather than paying directly for the healthcare itself, as is now done - effectively privatize Medicare for people under the age of 55.

Would you support that?

Sen. CORKER: Well, I have to tell you I'm a major fan of Paul Ryan's. And what I like is he's actually proposing a solution. I would go, you know, the characterization that you're giving would mean that people that are 54 and under would end up having exactly the kind of health care that senators have.

But the fact is, Paul Ryan's had the courage to lay something out there. Part of what he's laying out, as I understand, which I've been promoting, is constrained spending from where we are today at over 24 percent of spending relative to our overall economy, down to the 40-year average. And that's where you get those trillions of dollars in savings.

Obviously, to get there, you have to redesign these entitlement programs. And so, what I would say is, look, this is one route of getting there. My guess is the Gang of Six may come up with something else.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about what you're calling the Gang of Six. That's six of your fellow senators, Republicans and Democrats. They've signed on to at least the idea that there must be both spending cuts and also revenue increases. Both sides of the aisle would object to one of those two things, traditionally. What about you? Would you sign on to some combination of revenue increases and spending cuts?

Sen. CORKER: Well, I don't know. I mean I need to see - you know, you're asking, you know, questions about what-ifs. And I've found around here it's not good to answer what-ifs. It's best to see what it is. And I think, as a person who's been here four years and has been just shocked at the lack of fiscal discipline that we have here in Washington, I think over the next 100 to 120 days - 90 to 120 days - I think we have an opportunity to really right a lot of wrongs that have occurred on both sides of the aisle.

MONTAGNE: Speaking to us from his office on Capitol Hill, that's Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee.

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