With a looming March 1 budget deadline that would trigger $85 billion in automatic across-the-board reductions in federal expenditures, Kansas’ senior senator in the U.S. Congress said Monday he was confident lawmakers would strike a deal to avert financial disaster. Roberts, R-Kan., discussed the ramifications of those across-the-board cuts, referred to as a sequester, at a town hall-style meeting Monday afternoon before a standing-room-only audience in the commission chambers at City Hall, 101 S. Hickory St., Ottawa.
“The country is polarized, and Congress is a reflection of that polarization,” Roberts said.
Roberts said Republicans want to reform government programs, which Democrats label as budget cuts, while Democrats talk of revenue enhancements, which Republicans call tax increases.
“We will work through this,” Roberts said, predicting the sequester would last about 10 days. “We will find a solution, but we always do it in the 11th hour and 59th minute, and that’s not the way it should work.”
The longtime U.S. lawmaker, with more than 30 years in Washington between his stints in the House and Senate, met with Ottawa area residents for about 40 minutes, offering his view on the current state of budget talks in Washington, D.C., before fielding questions from the audience — most of which centered on concerns about the budget and economy.
One audience member asked why, if lawmakers truly are interested in resolving the sequester issue, Congress is in recess.
Roberts said a great many members of Congress, including himself, would rather be in Washington trying to work out a solution.
Roberts said he had concerns about President Obama legislating through executive orders, rather than conducting hearings on bills and debating amendments the way bills are intended to be passed.
“We haven’t had a budget in the Senate in four years,” Roberts said.
The veteran lawmaker was referring to April 29, 2009 — the last time the Democrat-led Senate adopted a budget resolution. It also was the last time the majority party brought a budget plan to the floor.
As the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Roberts offered the farm bill the Senate passed in June as an example of how the process is supposed to work, with the Senate voting on more than 70 amendments before passing the five-year farm bill.
“We cut nearly $24 billion out of the bill, because we knew we had to do our part to lower the deficit,” Roberts said.
Roberts said he would like to see federal agencies propose cuts to their programs for Congress to consider first, rather than having those cuts dictated through across-the-board reductions.
“We have to make budget cuts,” Roberts said. “The deficit is approaching $17 trillion, and we cannot sustain that kind of debt. The interest on that debt alone would wipe out any discretionary spending we have for some programs that are vital.”
One audience member asked why Congress couldn’t find middle ground.
Roberts then posed a few questions of his own, asking, “Would you be willing to cut Social Security? Defense spending? Education funding? Which programs would you be willing to cut?”
When the audience member didn’t have an answer, other than not wanting to cut those programs, Roberts said that is why Republicans and Democrats have a difficult time finding middle ground.
Roberts said he didn’t think Obama’s strong suit was working with members of Congress to reach a compromise.
“Bill Clinton was willing to talk with [Republicans] about any issue at any time, and we would reach solutions — sometimes he would get what he wanted, sometimes we would get what we wanted. But we knew how to reach a compromise and get things done,” Roberts said. “That’s not happening right now in Washington. Executive orders and more regulations are not the way to get things done.”
Roberts left the audience with a message of hope that Congress would get through these tough times.
“We have gotten through tough times before, and we will get through this,” he said.