Florida Democrat Talks Deficit Reduction

As the White House and Congress gear up for deficit reduction meetings, host Michel Martin speaks with Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) about what she thinks is necessary to reduce the deficit. In a testimony to the House Budget Committee, she has focused on protecting investments in education, family planning and job training.

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MICHEL MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

This week, we turn our attention back to pressing financial issues affecting this country. Vice President Joe Biden is expected to continue holding talks with members of Congress, to try to come up with an agreement on how to reduce the country's huge budget deficit. We wanted to take a closer look at the points of view that each side is bringing to the table, and perhaps points of view that are being overlooked.

In a minute, we'll speak with the outspoken former chair of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele. In his first op-ed since he left the chairmanship, he says the quote, wailing and gnashing of teeth, unquote, from both Republicans and Democrats when it comes to spending, taxes and debt, is just dishonest. That is coming up in just a few minutes.

But first, we've called - once again - upon Florida congresswoman Frederica Wilson. She's a Democrat who represents parts of Broward County, as well as parts of the Miami-Dade County area. She's a freshman, and we've checked in with her several times this year since she was sworn in, for her perspective on the process and battles on Capitol Hill. And congresswoman Wilson joins us now on the phone from Miami, at the office of a mentoring program she's involved with. Thanks so much for joining us.

FREDERICA WILSON: Oh, thank you. It's a pleasure to be with you again.

MARTIN: Well first, I wanted to get your take on whether you have a sense of optimism about these talks, or not. As you know, you know, these conversations about the debt have been going on for quite some time. There have been high-level commissions, bipartisan commissions. Do you feel that there is a possibility of an agreement?

WILSON: Well, Michel, there has to be. I have to have hope because we're running a government, and we have to come together and find a way to balance this budget. But we can't balance it on the backs of our babies and senior citizens. You know, budgets are all about choices and priorities and values. We've got to appeal to the American public so that they can appeal to their elected officials and understand that this country is in trouble, and we've got to solve this budget problem.

MARTIN: Well, there are just very different perspectives on the way forward here. Republicans, as a group, are generally demanding big changes and entitlement spending. The Democrats are generally asking for tax increases, particularly on high-income individuals or high-net-worth individuals. For example, today the Times is reporting that Senate Democrats are moving forward with a plan to eliminate tax breaks for big oil companies, and then divert the savings to offset the deficit. But Republicans are saying they're not willing to even vote to raise the debt ceiling limit unless there is an agreement on spending cuts. So what would break the logjam?

WILSON: Well, we have to stop giving tax breaks to the oil companies. And we cannot - we must not tamper with Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security. And I think to do so would be giving the Democrats a new majority in the House on a silver platter. So I think that the seniors in our community, and even the children of seniors, and people in our nation will fight this Medicare overhaul, and this Medicaid overhaul, that the Tea Party people are trying to push down the throats of the American people. They have gotten beat up about it. And I think that's what's going to be the logjam. I think that's going to break the logjam.

MARTIN: But people who, well, as you know - you're only one of nine freshmen Democrats in your class - the reason that the House changed hands is that a lot of people who were, in fact, backed by the Tea Party were elected in the last election cycle. So their argument is that they have a mandate to do this. What do you say to that?

WILSON: I say to them that the mandate is not to destroy Medicare. The mandate is not to destroy Medicaid. And the mandate is to leave - is not to destroy Social Security. So that's where we have a problem. This is all about choices and values and priorities. And all people need health care. And all seniors need the same kind of understanding and humane treatment - whether they are Republican, Democrat, independent, black, white, fat, skinny, whatever you are. They need Medicare. And we should not be tampering with Medicare to balance a budget while giving tax breaks to the very rich and to oil companies.

MARTIN: And finally, before I let you go - and we're going to hear from Michael Steele in a minute, as I just mentioned - in a piece for The Root, he wrote that part of the problem here is that what he calls, quote-unquote, establishment types are just not willing to get off the dime. They're not willing to move off their positions in order to come to an agreement, and that that's what's going to have to happen if this problem is going to be solved. So what would you say to that?

WILSON: Well, what people need to remember is that the debt exploded under President Bush, and that's what Michael Steele needs to understand. Through two wars that were not paid for; prescription drug deal that gave away billions to insurance companies that was not paid for; and massive tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent. He has to be real. We have to get behind closed doors and hammer these issues out, and come back to the table with a solution to help all people.

And I think once the word gets out to Republicans, and to Tea Party people, about Medicare and Medicaid - they had town hall meetings here in Florida, Republican town hall meetings. And they were booed when they talked about Medicare and Medicaid, all up and down the coast of Florida. So that's going to be the breaking point.

MARTIN: Congresswoman Frederica Wilson is a Democrat. She represents the 17th Congressional District of Florida. That includes parts of Broward County as well as parts of Miami-Dade County. And she joined us on the phone from Miami, where she's at a mentoring program that she's involved with in her district. Congresswoman, thank you so much for joining us once again.

WILSON: Thank you.

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