SCOTT SIMON, host:
And state governors weren't the only ones getting an earful this week. Members of Congress were back in their districts. Many conducted town hall meetings, where the federal budget deficit and proposed spending cuts topped the agenda.
NPR's Brian Naylor attending one that was held by Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
BRIAN NAYLOR: Columbia is smack dab in the middle of Missouri, home of the University of Missouri, where Claire McCaskill received her undergraduate and law degrees, which the city's mayor noted.
Mayor BOB McDAVID (Columbia, Missouri): Senator, I have followed some of your tweets and I know that if your soul has a color, it is black and gold.
NAYLOR: And it was clear from the outset this was not a Tea Party crowd demanding deep cuts in the federal budget. In this left-leaning college town, those who packed the City Hall's hearing room were worried that too much was about to be cut from domestic programs.
Questioners defended the EPA, community action grants, low-income heating assistance, even public radio. But McCaskill's message was blunt.
Senator CLAIRE McCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): I think is where I'm supposed to reassure everyone that, you know, we're gonna try to take care of this, and this is all gonna be okay. But honestly, I got to tell you, over the next ten years you should just assume if you're receiving funding from the federal government that's it's gonna shrink. And I will be someone working to help it shrink.
NAYLOR: McCaskill is walking a fine line. A centrist Democrat in a state that went for Republican John McCain in 2008, McCaskill is up for re-election next year. She denounced Republican plans to cut some $61 billion from current funding. But she said lawmakers have to make some tough choices.
Sen. McCASKILL: What gets you re-elected and what solves problems are sometimes like oil and water. And solving problems makes people mad. Nobody wants to make anybody mad because thats not how you get re-elected. But were going to have to do that if were going to fix this.
NAYLOR: McCaskill seems ready to make some folks mad. She says spending on entitlement programs, including Social Security and Medicare, which consume most of the budget, will have to be trimmed. She suggested the retirement age for Social Security might need to be raised for future recipients, and that Medicare might need to be means tested. She also said there were plenty of places to cut Defense spending, and that tax loopholes should be closed.
One of those who spoke up in the meeting was businessman Richard King. I caught up with him afterwards at the Blue Note, a venerable Columbia concert hall he owns.
MR. RICHARD KING (Owner, Blue Note): On this stage, weve had Chuck Berry. Johnny Cash actually played here twice with June Carter and the entire Carter family.
NAYLOR: King says he's a McCaskill supporter, but he's not encouraged by what he sees going on in Washington.
Mr. KING: It was definitely within my lifetime; in fact I know it was when Bill Clinton was president I believe we had a balanced budget. So as quickly as we unbalanced the budget, I think it can be balanced. But I just find the whole -this game thats going on, I think people are being misled and I think its wrong.
NAYLOR: Outside, computer salesman Ken Wilson says lawmakers should be looking for cuts in big things like Social Security, Medicare and Defense spending, which he believes are being ignored.
Mr. KEN WILSON (Computer salesman): A lot of what is being discussed is more for political purposes versus getting any real spending cuts taken care of. I think a lot of it is just window dressing, not real actions.
NAYLOR: McCaskill contends there is an honest conversation going on in Washington. She and her fellow Senate Democrats will be working in the coming week to find common ground with the House Republicans and avoid a government shutdown. McCaskill says cuts have to happen, but walking that fine line, she says the pain must be spread.
Brian Naylor, NPR News.
(Soundbite of song, Missouri Waltz)
SIMON: The Missouri Waltz. And youre listening to NPR News.
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