Sen. Whitehouse Discusses Debt Talks

Originally published on July 20, 2011 3:52 pm
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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Joining us now to talk about this is Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. He's a Democrat from Rhode Island. He sits on the Budget Committee. Senator, thank you very much for being with us.

SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: Good to be with you, Michele.

NORRIS: Now, what impact will the disappointing job numbers reported today have on these negotiations? And I'm wondering where there's room for compromise.

WHITEHOUSE: You can have a balanced budget at 6 percent unemployment, and you can have a balanced budget at 16 percent unemployment. And we need to make sure we're keeping our eye on that ball, because we do not want to end up with a balanced budget at 16 percent unemployment. That would be a true failure.

NORRIS: Let me ask you, senator, about proposed cuts in specific programs. President Obama said the country needs to look at cuts to some of the entitlement programs, the trinity that some Democrats do not want to touch - Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare. Is he right about that, will those programs have to be trimmed? And if so, where do you think the line should be drawn?

WHITEHOUSE: I think the Republicans do the country a disservice when they throw Social Security and Medicare together under the term the entitlement programs. And the seniors that I see in Rhode Island who haven't had a cola in two years, who are living on an average of about $14,000 a year from Social Security, they really can't bear much more of a burden. And it's the wrong place to look for cuts, A, because it didn't contribute to the deficit; and, B, because those people really don't have anything to spare.

NORRIS: So you're saying no cuts in Social Security?

WHITEHOUSE: I think there should be no cuts to Social Security. I think that the Republicans have been eager to take apart Social Security forever. They have a real vendetta against it, and they're using this opportunity to kind of drive out of the road and up on the sidewalk and try to knock down Social Security because they want to, not because it's a significant part of our deficit problem.

NORRIS: So you disagree with the president there. What about Medicare and Medicaid?

WHITEHOUSE: If you leave those exploding cost factors alone and just throw seniors under the bus and take away their benefits, and you haven't done anything about the underlying problem, I think you've misdiagnosed what the problem is and you've done a real disservice to America and her seniors.

NORRIS: You were quoted as saying, I think, it's a risky thing for the White House to basically take the bet that we can be presented with something at the last minute and that we will go for it. We, I think, in that case, meaning the Democrats. Is it possible that a compromise might happen without all the Democrats on board?

WHITEHOUSE: I think that that is possible, and it's also possible that a compromise could fail and not get through the Senate because it doesn't have enough Democrats on board. And I think the White House needs to be watchful of those concerns so that we're not all caught by surprise as this thing comes really to the brink, and suddenly, they present us with something that is unacceptable and haven't bothered to sort out with us beforehand what's acceptable and what is not in the course of their negotiations. I think that is a real risk and a real danger that we have to be careful to avoid.

NORRIS: Senator Whitehouse, it's been good to talk to you. Thank you very much for making time for us.

WHITEHOUSE: Yeah.

NORRIS: That's Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. He's a Democrat from Rhode Island. He sits on the Budget Committee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.