Eight Good Minutes With Bill Owens On A Government Shutdown

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By Jude Seymour

Rep. Bill Owens and I talked today about the still-looming threat of a government shutdown. The Plattsburgh Democrat blames his party for never passing a 2011 budget and putting everyone in this situation. He adds the Republicans' "slash-and-burn" approach to cuts has made it more difficult to accept than an across-the-board reduction, but he's positive centrists and almost-centrists will prevail...eventually.

Owens figures we're going to have another two-week continuing resolution first.

Great minds must think alike, because I also asked the congressman about being added to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's Frontline list. He was quite pleased with the designation. After all, the group is basically saying it will take extra financial care of him.

Owens acknowledged part of the DCCC's consideration for putting him on the list is that he is "vulnerable" for being unseated - my words, which he agreed with.

We also talked briefly about redistricting. Unlike Reps. Crowley and Higgins, Owens says he has no lobbyists looking after his interests. But the congressman said he thinks the north country will always have a seat.

He does, however, think we could see the 23rd district encroaching more into Oneida Country. The closer he gets to the Democratic strongholds of Utica and Rome, the better he figures his chances of getting re-elected.

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We've cleared the first hurdle here, which is that we got a continuing resolution for another two weeks. Now the news we're hearing is the Democrats are willing to put $6.5 billion of additional cuts out on the table, but the Republican leadership is saying, 'That's nowhere even close to the $61 billion that we want.' Are you concerned that there won't be a meeting of the minds over the next two weeks and we'll be facing a federal government shutdown all over again?

What we're hearing is that everyone believes that we're going to have another short-term continuing resolution that brings us to March 31. Whether it happens on the 18th or it happens on the 31st of March - at some point during this month we're going to have the real discussions about what's going to be cut and how much the cuts are going to be.

I've been in favor largely of what the Republicans have been proposing from a dollar amount perspective. It's how they get there that I have difficulty with. I do not believe ideological slash-and-burn approaches are appropriate, particularly not mid-year. And I also think that people generally understand the idea of shared pain. And you get there to the number that my friends on the other side of the aisle would like to see in (cutting) 2.5 to 3 percent.

The Republicans are talking about $2 billion worth of cuts if it's a two week resolution, $2 billion each week. Is it impossible to say at this point if you could support or not support because you don't yet know where the cuts are coming from?

That's exactly right. I have no information as I'm standing here. So I don't know what areas they would want to go into. If they came back and said, we'd like to get there by cutting the budget - I can't do the math that quickly in my head - But if it was a .001 percent cut across the board to get you to $4 billion, I could probably go along with that. Because that again to me seems to be reasonable. That's the approach I'd like to see taken.

I believe your philosophy is: It's OK to cut back on these programs, but to defund some of them is a step too far.

I think that particularly when it's largely ideologically focused. I think if you're going to cut programs, I agree with that. To be truthful with you, the people who come in to talk to me understand that. But they don't understand their program being defunded or seeing a tremendous slash in their funding mid-year. But fundamentally what people are looking for - and understand is - there's going to be reductions in funding. And they're happy to accept that. Happy may be an overstatement. But they're very willing to accept that - and they can manage 2 percent.

Should we be running our government two weeks at a time?

Absolutely not. Democrats made a mistake in not having a budget for FY11. I supported having a budget for FY11. It didn't move through leadership. I think we need to be getting to a budget so we can have the larger philosophic discussion when we're addressing the entire budget.

There's been some talk in the media about the lack of unification between the Democrats themselves. The Senate Democrats seem a little bit more open to the House GOP's cuts, while Nancy Pelosi was one of the people who said she was concerned what impact it would be. Is the fighting within the party hurting the ability to negotiate with the Republicans?

I don't think so, largely because the negotiations really occur between the Senate and the White House. You may have seen that Joe Biden was asked to join in that process yesterday. So that process is going to go on. What I really think the difficulty is going to be is the people at either extreme, the left or the right may have difficulty voting for various continuing resolutions or a final continuing resolution. I think if we actually get there, it might not be a bad thing. Because it will mean what we come up with is a broad-based compromise. And that's clearly what I'm looking for.

You and I have talked about the idea that the Tea Party - and especially some of these House GOP freshmen that came in under the Tea Party - are really kind of holding the entire Republican conference hostage in terms of demanding serious cuts - and it being a problem in terms of negotiating a compromise that's somewhere in the middle.

Right. Which is why I'm suggesting to you that if we see the folks on the far right and the folks on the far left walking away on a deal, that's going to allow the folks who are more towards the center to reach a compromise. And that also means that really will be a compromise. It will be something negotiated bereft of ideology, and more focused on the economic issues are.

Are there enough centrists to pass it in both the House and the Senate?

If you look at it today, probably not enough Senators. But there are people who are slightly outside that definition who I think would join a compromise.

Joe Biden has joined the talks. What do you think about his role, having the White House jump in on these talks now?

Personally, I think the White House should have been involved in this before. I think you have the two arms of the government that need to come up with a budget resolutions. And I don't mean that in the continuing resolution sense, but in resolving a discussion. I think that having somebody like the vice president join in elevates the discussion and I think allows you to reach a compromise more effectively and more efficiently.

You've undoubtedly been hearing from people in the district about this looming government shutdown. What has been the consensus? What are they telling you?

Well, what we're hearing is - the government shutdown, people are really nervous about. I think there's a real understanding today, maybe more so than in '90s about what that would mean in terms of the loss of services. As you know, the polling shows a tremendous disconnect between the desire to reduce the deficit and the debt, but yet people not wanting to see services cut. Obviously, those two things work in tandem. They are not inverse of one another. I think it's very important the people understand that if this happens, there will be cuts in services. Can people manage certain levels of cuts in services? I think that they can. And I think they will. But they can't deal with a government shutdown where all services are terminated in particular areas nor can they deal with their programs being eliminated.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014
, Watertown, NY

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