Budget Wars: A Standoff Escalates In Congress Republicans are demanding big cuts in all spending that isn't defense-related. Democrats say the economic recovery is still too fragile to do that. Now Democrats warn that the GOP could shut down the government and allow a default on the national debt if it doesn't get the cuts it wants.
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Budget Wars: A Standoff Escalates In Congress

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Budget Wars: A Standoff Escalates In Congress

Budget Wars: A Standoff Escalates In Congress

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

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

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's February, the month that President Obama is supposed to send Congress his plan for next year's budget. That is normal, but the rest is not. Republicans and Democrats are still fighting over this year's budget, the fiscal year that's already months old. Republicans want big cuts in all non-defense spending. Democrats contend the economic recovery is still too fragile to do that. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: Last Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked if he ruled out forcing a government shutdown if Republicans don't get their way on spending cuts. This is all he would say.

MITCH MCCONNELL: We have two opportunities to do something important for the country on spending and debt. We ought not to miss this opportunity. The president ought to step up to the plate with us and tackle it, together.

WELNA: The fact that McConnell did not rule out a government shutdown when given a chance to do so was seized on yesterday by the Senate Democrats' new message man, Charles Schumer of New York.

CHARLES SCHUMER: Too many Republicans seem to want to force a government shutdown. That would be the same mistake they made in 1995. It would be even a bigger mistake now. It's playing with fire.

WELNA: Schumer spoke at a news conference that Senate Democratic leaders convened at the Capitol. It was to accuse Republicans of threatening not only a government shutdown, but also a default on the nation's debt. Here's the Senate's number two Democrat, Dick Durbin.

DICK DURBIN: A default on our nation's obligations would be the single most irresponsible political action in the history of Congress.

WELNA: Republicans, in fact, have not been making public threats lately to shut down the government or let it go into default. But Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, who's the top Republican on the budget committee, did make it clear in an interview that his party will use the possibility of a debt default to win concessions on spending.

JEFF SESSIONS: Unidentified Man: And if they don't?

SESSIONS: Then it's not going to happen, I don't believe.

WELNA: But Sessions added he was confident things would not come to that.

SESSIONS: The practical reality is that the big spenders took a shellacking in this election. The American people want to see action now, and I don't think they will be satisfied with putting it off.

WELNA: Indeed, yesterday, Paul Ryan, the new Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, announced he wants all the non-defense spending Congress has a say over cut this year by nearly 20 percent. According to Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, that's too much too soon.

MARK ZANDI: I think it would be counterproductive to engage in that kind of fiscal restraint until it's very clear that the unemployment rate - which is still very high - is moving definitively lower. I think that should be the benchmark for imposing that fiscal discipline and austerity.

WELNA: Still, number two Senate Democrat Durbin acknowledged some spending cuts will have to be made this year.

DURBIN: I think that's the political reality. With a Republican House there will be spending cuts for deficit reduction, number one. Number two, if they aren't so deep as to jeopardize the recovery, I understand we're putting ourselves on a credible path toward reducing the deficit. And that restores confidence in the American economy. So I'm ready to try to find that balance that strikes - the number that strikes that balance.

WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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