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Maine Senators Play Key Role in Budget Talks
11/18/2013   Reported By: Mal Leary

As part of the agreement to end the partial federal shutdown and keep the government funded for the next few months, Congress established a complex process to set federal spending for at least the current budget year, and possibly the following year as well. Both of Maine's U.S. senators are playing key roles in that process, and say it won't be an easy exercise. Mal Leary reports.

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Passing a federal budget is a complicated process, to say the least. Under the agreement reached in October, a special committee of members from both the House and Senate budget dommittees have been charged with setting an overall spending amount.

Sen. Angus King, an independent, has been named to that panel, and at both public meetings of the group has express frustration.

"As you saw, at the meeting on Wednesday, there was all this talk about general economics and I said here?s a proposal,"

King says he doubts that his plan will be the solution, but he says the panel has to start talking specifics. King's proposal would cut in half the sequestration cuts over eight years by closing what he calls corporate tax loopholes and by making cuts in entitlement programs.

He says he deliberately left out specific details because that is not the job of the budget committee. The panel is responsible for setting a spending number, and he says that will be difficult to accomplish.

"Everybody is talking about a small agreement, an agreement that only affects a year or two, that ought to be doable. And there are a lot of ideas out there. So, I am hopeful, but I would call it mildly optimistic. There are so many ideological and political differences, ah, it's going to be tough."

King says most Republicans are saying "no" to any new revenues, and some Democrats are refusing to accept cuts to entitlement programs, such as Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and food stamps. He says negotiations are underway between the co-chairs of the panel, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan. But other talks have emerged following fears that they won't reach agreement.

"It's a delicate situation you don't want to undercut your chair but at the same time you want to have discussions going on so there is a fallback if they can't reach agreement."

King says it's important to reach the overall spending number by Dec. 15 because the Appropriations Committees will then have to do the actual allocation of dollars among thousands of budget line items. Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, says the members will need time to do their job.

"We do go account by account, program by program and have to determine what the appropriate spending numbers should be. And we are operating in a budget environment that is going to be very constrained. It is going to mean that a lot of worthy programs are going to see reductions."

Collins says she is willing to support eliminating tax breaks as well as making targeted cuts. She says the sequestration process, with it's across the board cuts of so-called " discretionary spending," is hurting the economy.

"It may be called discretionary, but it includes national defense, education, transportation, biomedical research and a host of other vital programs. I do think that we have to put everything on the table."

Collins says she was pleased to see King put a plan forward, even without details. She agrees that both the budget and the appropriations process will need members of both parties in the House and Senate, as well as independents, to compromise.

Otherwise, she says, there could be another partial shutdown on the horizon, once temporary spending measures run out on Jan. 15.



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