Congressmen Divided On Budget Battle, Government Showdown

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President Obama met with House leaders yesterday but failed to work out a compromise on the 2011 federal budget. The President has called for additional meetings to try and reach agreement. Congress has until Friday night to finalize the budget or face a government shutdown. Freshman Republican Congressman Joe Walsh and Democratic chair of the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, Representative Charlie Gonzalez, discuss their opposing views on budget cuts and the impact of a federal shutdown with host Michel Martin.


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

On the program today we will focus on the showdown over the federal budget. Later in the program we will speak with a faith leader who is in his ninth day without food. He is fasting to protest proposals to cut the federal budget that he says fall disproportionately upon the poorest and most vulnerable. We'll talk to the Reverend Jim Wallis about why he says the budget is a moral issue. That is later.

But first, two members of Congress with two different viewpoints on that federal budget. If Congress does not pass a budget for fiscal year 2011 by midnight this Friday, a law known as the Antideficiency Act kicks in and forces most federal agencies and programs to cease operations - to shut down. There were dueling press conferences yesterday to talk about which side would be most to blame if this were to happen.

Here's President Obama after his meeting with leaders of the House on Tuesday.

President BARACK OBAMA: Right now we've got some business in front of us that needs to be done. And that is making sure that we are cutting spending in a significant way, but we're doing it with a scalpel instead of a machete to make sure that we can still make investments in education, we can still make investments in infrastructure, we can still make investments that put the American people back to work and build our economy for the long term.

MARTIN: We'll hear from Speaker Boehner in just a minute. But the president pledged to meet again and keep meeting with House leaders until a deal is reached. Meanwhile, the White House has reportedly instructed federal agencies to start preparing for a shutdown. We wanted to talk about the ongoing budget battle with two lawmakers who are in the thick of it.

Representative Joe Walsh is a freshman Republican from the northwest suburbs of Chicago. He's a member of the Tea Party Caucus. He serves on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Representative Charlie Gonzalez is a Democrat serving his seventh term representing the 20th district in Texas, which includes San Antonio. He is the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and a member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce. And they're both with us from Capitol Hill.

Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Representative JOE WALSH (Republican, Illinois): Thank you.

Representative CHARLIE GONZALEZ (Democrat, Texas): Thank you.

MARTIN: We just heard from the president. I just want to play a short clip from House Speaker John Boehner. This is what he had to say after his meeting with the president.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): Now, we're not going to allow the Senate nor the White House to put us in a box where we have to make a choice between two bad options: cutting a bad deal this week in order to keep the government open or allow the government to shut down due to Senate inaction.

MARTIN: So Congressman Walsh, what's he talking about?

Rep. WALSH: I think the speaker's frustrated. We're maybe 45, 46 days removed from the House passing H.R.1, which basically funded government for the rest of the year and contained substantial spending cuts. And we just haven't gotten a response at all from the Senate.

Now, you know, the president's finally engaged, whoopty-doo. If he's finally engaged, he's been engaged the last day or so. I think the speaker and the House Republicans are tired of sort of negotiating with them and talking with themselves.

MARTIN: But aren't both sides in the same box? I mean, the fact is you just have significant disagreements about what is most important to cut. And then since - isn't everybody in the same box, facing the choice between shutting the government down and accepting some things that they just don't like?

Rep. WALSH: Look, a lot of us freshmen got elected, 87 Republican freshmen, because we just firmly believe the American people sent us here to finally, finally get serious about cutting spending. I don't think the Senate Democrats have really gotten that message. My hope is that they'll get it this week.

MARTIN: Mr. Gonzalez, Mr. Walsh is saying, first of all, that the president has not been sufficiently engaged in the process and he also says that it's really the Senate Democrats who are the problem here. Do you think that either or both of those statements is true and accurate from your perspective?

Rep. GONZALEZ: Well, you know, of course not. H.R.1, which I didn't vote for, I guess it was passed out at about 4:30 in the morning on February 19th, but I was - my understanding is that the Senate did take it up and didn't get enough votes to even come up for consideration in debate, much less a vote. So the Senate has already said no to H.R.1, which should've started the serious negotiations.

From our point of view and many Democrats - I'm not going to speak for everyone - we look at it has the Republicans just can't take yes for an answer. We basically met what they put out on the table as a target of cutting anywhere from 30 to 34 billion dollars. Since that time, the goal posts have, in fact, been moved. And if we're going to continue doing that, well, everybody who's negotiated anything understands you're on a forever track.

I'm hoping that's not the case and that we do something for the next few days, come back next week, we keep government open, and then we pass a CR that will cover the remaining months of the fiscal year, which will end in September of this year.

MARTIN: Congressman Gonzalez, the president says he's not going to support another stop gap measure. Do you think that that's a fair position? Do you agree with that?

Rep. GONZALEZ: The way I look at it is I don't want to shut down government. I don't like the confrontational tone of things. I don't think the president has been confrontational. So I do believe this: If we can make incredible progress on what we're going to do for the remainder of the year, but we need to keep government open for the next few days, then let's do that.

And then next week, when we have plenty of time to consider what the remaining budget looks like for the remaining months in fiscal year 2011, we'll have a vote on that. But shutting down government costs money. Even Speaker Boehner said it's not a wise thing to do. You spend more than you save.

MARTIN: That's Congressman - Democratic Congressman Charlie Gonzalez, the head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the ongoing federal budget battle and the possibility of a government shutdown as soon as this weekend with Congressman Gonzalez and Republican Congressman and Tea Party Caucus member Joe Walsh of Illinois.

Congressman Walsh, you were saying that the people sent you here to achieve these cuts. In fact, that this in part - the midterm elections were in part a referendum on government spending. But what about the people who just don't agree with the perspective of the people who supported you? I mean, the same voters, well, not not the same voters, but you see my point, is that the voters who elected you are also the same voters who elected the president and who voted for Mr. Gonzalez and that you got just these distinct points of view here about what government is for and how much is - spending is reasonable. How do you think that those various points of view should be resolved?

Rep. WALSH: And you make a good point. I mean elections do have consequences. And in 2008 President Obama won and the Democrats retained control of the entire city. And they set about to do what they wanted. Fast forward two years. If the American people had been enamored with what the president had done, the Republicans would not have been given control of the House.

I mean, we were given control of the House because I think in a broad measure the American people rose up and said, now, wait a minute, we are spending our kids' and our grandkids' money, slow down and stop. I am somewhat offended by, you know, the president coming in here in the last day or two and saying, come on, guys, you know, let's put your heads together, let's do something.

He appointed Joe Biden as vice president to lead these negotiations over a month ago and the vice president left the country the next day. I don't think he's been serious. I don't think he's been engaged at all.

MARTIN: And at this point, is it more important to reach a deal or to avoid a government shutdown? What's most important to you?

Rep. WALSH: Absolutely. At this point we do not want a government shutdown, which is again why Speaker Boehner put one more stopgap measure in front of the president and the Democrats yesterday, funding the government for another week, I believe taking the military off the table, funding our troops for the rest of the year, and containing spending cuts - in an effort to try to keep this negotiation going for another week. And it's my understanding the president just said no to that.

So I mean I do believe, and look, I've been hard on our leadership because I'm one of these Tea Party freshmen who want as many spending cuts as we can get. But I will say in his defense, he's made every effort to try to keep this government funded.

MARTIN: He being Mr. Boehner, the speaker.

Rep. WALSH: Mr. Boehner, our speaker.

MARTIN: Mr. Gonzalez, what about you? What's most important, avoiding a shutdown or perhaps accepting more cuts than you are comfortable with?

Rep. GONZALEZ: Well, we've already accepted many cuts. I started off by saying that the Republicans can't take yes for an answer because we met their target as far as reducing spending. As I've said, they keep moving it. If you continue negotiating that way, then there is never going to be a compromise. I say that we have to have a reasonable compromise.

Legislation is really the art of negotiation and compromise. But when you say my way or the highway, it doesn't work. And what Joe is saying, I understand 87 freshmen were elected on the Republican side, but that still leaves 348 other representatives with the House of Representatives that also have opinions, that also represent diverse interests in other parts of this country, and we're not going to neglect them.

I say right now the question is, where are you going to make the cuts? I think we've agreed on the amount, if in fact that amount is $33 billion. If that keeps moving, I'm not real sure. As far as the American people being heard, do you really believe that those individuals voting on November 2nd of last year, if they had known the specific intended cuts and the privatization of Medicare and so on, do you really think that they would've said, you reduce spending at all costs?

What they were saying was, we need to get spending in check. We need to establish what our priorities are as a country. We're not debating priorities. And the other thing, I know everybody believes that it is strictly a spending problem when the truth is it's also a revenue problem. And until we get our hands around the revenue part - I'm talking about taxes - then we're not going to solve deficits and we're not going to solve reducing the national debt meaningfully.

MARTIN: And Mr. Walsh, I'm going to give you the final word. And in a minute we're going to hear from the Reverend Jim Wallis, who is one of a number of faith leaders, actually, who are fasting and engaging in other actions to protest what they view as budget cuts that they say fall disproportionately upon the poor and the most vulnerable. And since we're going to hear from him in a minute, I just wanted to ask as a final thought from you, do you think that that's accurate?

Rep. WALSH: I think this is a fascinating time to be in Congress. It's nice to sit here next to Charlie, who's been here for a while. I'd love to pick his brain as to how unique this time is. Look, we're debating big important things. I'm a social worker and a teacher by trade. No one's going to out-empathize me for taking care of the needy in this country.

What we are trying to do is engage in a discussion as to where that help comes from and how much of that help should come from the federal government. Again, I go back to this: We are on a path right now, and I would think Charlie would agree with this, that unless we change it, our kids and our grandkids are going to be bankrupted.

MARTIN: Representative Joe Walsh is a Republican from the northwest suburbs of Chicago. He's a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. And he's a member of the Tea Party Caucus. Representative Charlie Gonzalez is a Democrat serving his seventh term in Congress. He represents Texas's 20th district, which includes San Antonio, and he is chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. And they were both with us from Capitol Hill.

And gentlemen, I thank you both so much for joining us at such a busy time. I do hope we'll speak again.

Rep. WALSH: Thank you.

Rep. GONZALEZ: Thank you.

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