WASHINGTON As Congress edged closer to a budget impasse that threatens to shut down the federal government, members of Arkansas’ delegation dug into opposing positions Wednesday.
Arkansas’ three freshmen Republican House members voiced exasperation with Senate Democrats, blaming them for holding up the process to pass a budget for the remainder of the current fiscal year. But Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor responded that such criticism was part of the “blame game” that has contributed to the current stalemate.
Meanwhile, Arkansas Rep. Mike Ross and the Blue Dog Coalition - a group of House Democrats who bill themselves as fiscally conservative - released their own budget priorities to jump-start budget talks. Republican House leaders have privately turned to them to potentially provide the votes needed to overcome a split with their own Tea Party members.
The latest in a series of short-term federal spending bills is set to expire April 8. While the Republican-led House passed a bill that would keep the federal government operating through the end of the current fiscal year, which expires Sept. 30, the Democratic-led Senate rejected that plan.
If an agreement is not reached between the two chambers, the federal government could shut down.
On Wednesday, members of each party attempted to pin the blame for that possibility on the other side.
Rep. Rick Crawford of Arkansas’ 1st District led nine other freshmen Republicans, including his Arkansas colleague, 2nd District Rep. Tim Griffin, at a news conference outside the Capitol before walking over to the other side of the building and marching up a long line of marble stairs and inside to deliver a letter to Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada asking him to complete a spending bill in the upper chamber.
“We’re asking Sen. Reid one thing - pass the bill,” Crawford said. “Be a leader.”
But Pryor dismissed the move as political gamesmanship.
“I don’t agree with that,” Pryor told reporters in a conference call. “To me, that just is more of the blame game. That’s what you get here in Washington, and that’s not helping anybody.
“We need serious-minded people who are willing to sit down and work through these issues,” Pryor said.
Crawford contended that the House had already made the first move by passing a budget plan.
At the news conference, Crawford stood at a lectern framed by two large posters, one reading “39,” the other “0.”
Pointing to one poster, Crawford explained that it had been 39 days since the House passed a bill to fund the government for the rest of the year. Since then, Crawford said gesturing to the other, there’s been “zero” action from Senate Democrats.
“Failure is not an option,” Crawford said. “We’re not here to try to shut down the government. We’re here to reform the way the government does business.”
Rep. Steve Womack of the 3rd District joined his colleagues in signing the letter calling for the Senate to take action.
“This isn’t some game to see which party has more power than the other,” Republican Womack said in a statement.
“We were all sent here - both new and veteran members from both chambers - to work for the people of this great country and the people have overwhelmingly called for cuts in spending.”
Speaking at the news conference, Griffin echoed that sentiment, adding that Senate Democrats didn’t want to reach a deal.
“Everything I’m seeing from the other side is they are dead-set on shutting down the government,” he said. “They want to shut the government down for political reasons.”
But that wasn’t how Arkansas’ two Democratic members saw the situation. Pryor - who had been quoted in Politico, a Washington trade paper, as saying, “We’re probably looking at a shutdown” - told reporters Wednesday he’s “concerned we are rapidly approaching an impasse.”
But he and other members of the state’s delegation said they don’t want to see the government grind to a halt, as occurred twice during the Clinton administration.
Pryor said that if federal offices are closed, Arkansas residents would feel the effects in ways big and small, ranging from veterans not being able to access services to passport applications being halted to recreational facilities being closed.
“I think a shutdown is reckless and irresponsible,” he said.
Arkansas’ Sen. John Boozman, a Republican, said he wanted to avoid a government shutdown.
“I am hopeful we can agree on a responsible, comprehensive, solution that puts us on the path of fiscal responsibility while avoiding any interruptions in government services,” he said in a statement.
Pryor and Ross reiterated that the current budget fight involves funding to keep the federal government operating only for the next six months. They said the spending cuts being debated as part of that represent a minuscule amount of the long-term federal debt that all sides recognize as a more significant fiscal issue.
The debate over the short-term budget “has been misleading,” said Ross, participating in a conference call to unveil the Blue Dogs’ benchmarks for long-term fiscal change. “It leads a lot people in the general public to believe that we can simply fix the national fiscal problem in this country by addressing discretionary, non-defense spending, and we simply can’t do that.”
As part of the targets they announced, the Blue Dog members want to cut the overall federal deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years and return to 2008 spending levels by 2013.
The Blue Dog coalition also would leave all options on the table - meaning spending cuts, tax increases, defense spending, Social Security and Medicare.
“This is about starting a conversation in the House,” said the 4th District’s Ross, adding that Blue Dog members “can play a pivotal role in bringing that about.”
Ross and other Blue Dog Democrats have met with House Republicans to discuss budget issues. After leaving one meeting, Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., told The Washington Post that coalition members realized they could provide the decisive votes to pass the short-term budget for the current year because Tea Party Republicans may oppose the kind of compromise plan that would be needed to pass the Senate.
Crawford dismissed the need for Democratic votes to pass a measure in the House, saying Republicans in the chamber were working “in unison.”
Front Section, Pages 2 on 03/31/2011
Print Headline: Budget tactics divide Arkansas delegates