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Blunt, McCaskill: Efforts to shut down government will fall short

Updated: 2013-08-20T17:31:49Z

By STEVE KRASKE

The Kansas City Star

Sens. Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt of Missouri are known for wearing their partisan stripes proudly at times.

But McCaskill, a Democrat, and Blunt, a Republican, agree on a range of issues beginning with the chances of conservative senators shutting down the federal government this fall over Obamacare.

It won’t happen, they said in wide-ranging interviews.

“They’re playing with nitroglycerin politically,” McCaskill, a second-term Democrat, said about conservative GOP senators. “If they really try and succeed in shutting down the federal government, I think there will be a price to be paid at the ballot box.”

Said Blunt, a freshman Republican: “It’s not tactically a strategy that works.”

Missouri’s two senators also agreed on the need for the U.S. Senate to maintain its 60-vote rule to overcome filibusters. Critics have roundly blamed the rule for gridlock in Congress.

One big disagreement emerged on how the two graded President Barack Obama for his record on creating jobs in the wake of the Great Recession.

The two answered a number of questions during separate interviews that also covered a proposal to bring back government earmark spending as a way to reduce friction in Congress.

Answers were edited for length and clarity. Because of interview time constraints, each senator did not answer every question. For a lengthier story about the interviews, go to kansascity.com.

How likely is it that Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and other Republicans will succeed in shutting down the federal government?

McCaskill: I see a pretty big split in the Republican Party right now, and there is clearly in the Republican Party a desire to please what appears to be a growing base of the Republican Party that believes that government is the enemy. I don’t think government is the answer, but government is not the enemy.

So, I think these guys are running for president, and I think they’re trying to win a Republican presidential primary, and we have three of them in the Senate — Cruz, (Kentucky’s Rand) Paul and (Florida’s Marco) Rubio — and it appears they are playing to a political base and not really trying to solve problems in a way that is realistic.

We’ve been able to work with a number of Republicans this year. They understand that shutting down the government would be cause for a lot of pain for millions of Americans.

I’m not just talking about federal employees here. I’m taking about Missourians, whether it’s highway or roadwork stopping, or people getting laid off that do business with the federal government. All of it is pretty unacceptable.

Blunt: I don’t think it’s very likely. There’s too many people, in my view, who have decided that they can become the strategists. Whether it’s my friends in the Senate or people I agree with in issue groups around the country, it’s a huge mistake to set litmus tests that are purely tactical in nature.

But you oppose Obamacare and you oppose big bureaucracy, so why isn’t the Cruz approach the right way to go?

Blunt: There are lots of reasons to believe this is not a workable plan. But elections do have consequences. How do you put a bill on the president’s desk that neither the Democrats in the Senate nor the president agree with? We need to look for other ways.

This thing (Obamacare) is coming apart one piece at a time. We’d probably be more impactful if we figured out the parts that they’re not even willing to defend and say let’s just eliminate those things as we try to find a better way forward. Why look for ways to divide ourselves on the tactics on how to get there?

You hear all the time that Washington is broken. Only 22 bills have passed the House and Senate in the first six months of the 113th Congress. And yet, the Senate has moved legislation on several fronts in recent weeks, including immigration reform and some presidential appointments. Is that a sign that Washington is not broken?

McCaskill: Washington never works well when there is a divided government. People forget that the American people elected a Senate and a House of Representatives that has a diametrically different view of what our priorities should be. If you look at it through that lens, it’s not realistic that we’re going to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya.”

The problem is (Republican House Speaker John) Boehner will not allow legislation to be voted on unless a majority of the Republican caucus is for it. So that means essentially a minority of the House of Representatives has the ability to shut down the entire body. If you added the reasonable Republicans with the Democrats, you have more than 50 percent of the House.

That’s really at the root of this.

Blunt: Washington’s clearly not producing the type of results that people have every right to expect. The president’s jobs speech a couple of weeks ago (in Warrensburg, Mo.) was the same speech he’s been giving for six years calling for the same things that aren’t going to happen. That’s no way to lead.

At the same time with the Senate, when you let the process work the right way it can usually produce a result. There’s an unwillingness to let the process work. But clearly when you’ve got a House and Senate of different parties, it’s a different type of struggle than when you have House and Senate of the same party.

Are you encouraged by what you’ve seen in the Senate of late?

McCaskill: Yes, I am. We had that (closed-door) caucus with everyone in the room. It was cathartic and important, and we listened to one another. You could have heard a pin drop. We came out of there with a renewed commitment that we’ve got to keep trying. We’ve accomplished some major goals in terms of legislation. None of this legislation am I over the moon about. There’s a lot to hate about everything we’ve done. But it’s a compromise.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, has said one way to end the gridlock is to bring back congressional earmarks because that greases the deal-making in Washington. What about it?

McCaskill: That’s not the right way. We want people to believe that government is working on a merit basis to spend their money, not on whom you know, not how much seniority you have and not based on the committee you’ve been assigned. You don’t restore faith in government by going back to sprinkling fairy dust in the back room, especially with our fiscal challenges.

I believe he’s flat wrong on this one.

Blunt: The benefit of the Congress doing what was always seen as its constitutional job of directing how the money would be spent is widely misunderstood. What it really does when legislation has more specifics in it is it gives members of Congress the ability to go home and talk about why the vote they cast really matters to the state or the district they represent.

If a bridge is going to be built in Kansas City across the river, better for that to be in the legislation than let some person in the Department of Transportation a year later decide, “Hey, we need to repair this bridge.” That gives members of Congress nothing to go home and talk about except the big number we’re going to spend on transportation.

Is it time for the Senate to end its 60-vote rule on the filibuster to enable the Senate to more expeditiously pass bills?

Blunt: It … is a unique protection in our system that the views of the minority would always be heard.

It also is an assurance that you don’t dramatically swing from one side to the other in the direction of the country. It takes a couple, three elections for the country to decide that’s not what we thought we ought to do.

If the Senate and House were similar, then one Congress could change the funding structure of Social Security, then the next Congress could come in and change it right back. The country really has to say we want to do this and we are committed to it even after we had a chance to think about it.

Often people say in one election, “Here’s the message we’re sending this election.” But after a couple of years to think about it, those same voters say, “Now that we’ve had time to think about it, maybe that was an overreach.”

McCaskill: Look at some of this stuff being proposed on voting rights, women’s health issues, immigration. If there’s no authority of the minority to slow things down in the Senate, as our Founding Fathers wanted, it worries me as to what might pass.

If I was part of a group that turned the Senate into 51 votes for everything, I could see there might be some regrets there.

How would you grade how well the president has done when it comes to job creation?

McCaskill: B.

Blunt: It’s poor. The biggest potential economic driver for the past 20-25 years is the American advantage on energy of all kinds. The president has refused to embrace that, even to the point of denigrating the job-creation potential of something like the Keystone Pipeline. It clearly creates jobs to build the pipeline.

Crisis management has become the administration’s go–to position. Everything is focused on the next impending crisis and who has the leverage in that crisis. That’s no way to govern, and it’s no way to effectively move the economy forward to constantly create questions and doubts about what’s coming next.

What's your reaction to what the House wants to do on food stamps, which is to cut the program by $40 billion over a decade?

McCaskill: That’s not who we are in America. The Senate actually cut the food stamp program in our farm bill. We reformed it and cut it by billions of dollars. There’s not a government program I’m not willing to look at and make sure it’s working right. But this notion that it’s OK to pass the farm bill and never mind about food stamps, that’s a non-starter.

This was a purely political vote (in the House) to play to a rural constituency. I’ve got news for Congress: If you look in these rural areas, some of the areas in my state that are most dependent on food stamps are not in St. Louis and Kansas City. They are in rural Missouri. They are in counties in southern and southeastern Missouri that are more dependent per capita on the foods stamp program than most of St. Louis and Kansas City.

Is it time to reconsider our approach to the drug war?

Blunt: Well, there actually two different questions here. One, should we continue to have efforts against drug use that create penalties? I think the answer is yes.

Second, after 20 years of heading in one direction on how we run the prison system in the country, would it be a good idea to look at that and see if it’s really effective and what the cost of the results are? The answer there is also yes.

Can you foresee a day when Missouri would legalize marijuana?

Blunt: No, I can’t. Drugs are a huge problem. We have a huge meth problem in Missouri and in the country. Drug users aren’t the only ones impacted by it. So is the person they steal money from, the person who gets assaulted. It is not a victimless crime.

Sen. McCaskill, you’ve spent a lot of time focused on contracting and government waste. What have you learned about that in your six years in Washington?

McCaskill: It is a big problem. The good news about this (economic) downturn is that we’ve got more people looking at the way the federal government spends money.

There’s no question that contracting was out of control. One of the dirty little secrets is that in the push to reduce the size of government during the Bush years, contracting exploded. And by the way, these aren’t contracts to buy things; these are contracts for people to do exactly the same work as federal employees do. All this done without a cost-benefit analysis.

In six years we’ve done a lot of work, and we’ve certainly changed contracting in the Pentagon in a way that’s going to save real money for taxpayers. But I could do this work for 60 years and not get it all straightened out.

You just called the Pentagon's process for searching for missing soldiers a "disgrace." Why did you call it that?

McCaskill: For 20 years, there has been infighting and quarreling among different parts of the military tasked with searching for MIA missing heroes.

It’s not clear who’s in charge. And it certainly isn’t clear who to hold accountable. We are going to get that changed.

The other thing that’s really bad about this is I don’t believe the military is being honest with the families about how realistic it is that some of these recoveries will occur, especially those in World War II that were over water.

At some point in time we need to focus like a laser on recovering remains. It’s a moral obligation. We also need to give good honest reliable information to these families to give them some kind of closure as to what is possible and what is impossible.

What’s your biggest concern with it comes to terrorism: Is it the electric grid, the Internet, the food supply?

Blunt: At the top of my list would be cyber security, the ability to disrupt the Internet that we are dependent upon in so many ways.

Generally the government and the military are actually ahead of the private sector on this, which is one of the few places where the government outperforms the private sector. I’ve been looking for ways to help bring that critical infrastructure into a better position. That includes talking to all our utility providers in Missouri about their concerns of what happens if the government gets more involved in their concerns and what happens if there is a cyber-event.

You have taken the lead in the Senate on legislation that would allow individuals to record conversations with any federal official and make it easier to tape IRS agents. Why are you pushing for this legislation?

Blunt: Generally the balance between people and their government has shifted way too much toward the government. The resources of the government, if you’re fighting the government on a regulatory issue or a tax issue, always outlast your resources. The ability of the government to intimidate in both a regulatory environment and a tax environment is unfair. It’s just an effort to level the playing field.

Most citizens now believe that the government is probably taping what they’re saying, and they have every right to do the same thing. There is a trust factor in government that you can see that we’re losing.

We need to be doing everything we can to restore trust in the government.

To reach Steve Kraske, call 816-234-4312 or send email to skraske@kcstar.com.

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