The Senate Budget Committee’s top Republican is warning Democrats that there’s not much room for compromise on the House plan to slash $61 billion in U.S. government spending this year.
“I really think that’s a good number,” Senator Jeff Sessions said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend. “And I think we should fight for it.”
Current spending authority ends March 18, and a failure to enact funding by then would force a shutdown of non-essential government services. Lawmakers plan to vote next week on a plan to keep the government running until April 8.
Sessions, 64, also said he’s willing to consider tax increases, along with cuts in entitlement program costs, as part of an effort to craft a longer-term, bipartisan plan to tame the U.S. debt and deficit.
Tax increases will “be a bitter pill for me, but we have got to get this country on the right path,” said Sessions, who became the ranking Republican on the budget panel in January.
Still, the Alabama lawmaker said he would question whether any tax increase was needed. “I’d have to challenge it, but I would look at it,” he said.
Sessions joined nine other Republicans March 10 to warn Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada that they will hold up consideration of any measure that doesn’t provide “meaningful” cuts to government.
While the Senate rejected the House spending bill this week, Sessions said the amount it proposes to cut is “defensible” and would reduce the deficit by $860 billion over a decade.
Some developments in the fight over the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 are aiding prospects for a longer-range debt-reduction proposal, Sessions said. Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia and Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia are leading talks on such a plan.
This week 10 Democratic senators and independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont voted against a Democratic spending bill for this year that would have cut about one-tenth as much as the House plan. The vote showed that many Democrats support larger spending reductions, Sessions said.
“The momentum for containing spending is growing, because the crisis is more real than a lot of us like to admit,” Sessions said. “We have people who are in denial. The president’s budget was very disappointing.”
On entitlement spending, Sessions said it’s important to get an early start on reducing projected Social Security costs to extend the life of the retirement program. Still, he said, to make a dent in the U.S. debt it’s more important to look at the Medicare health system for the elderly.
“Medicare is a bigger problem, and I’m a bit surprised we’re not focusing more on that, although a lot of people think it’s more achievable to do Social Security,” he said.
In discussing foreign issues, Sessions said President Barack Obama isn’t responding forcefully enough to the violence in Libya, where government forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi mounted a full-scale attack on rebels who took control of the eastern half of the country.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has called for a no-fly zone over Libya, has been “more aggressive and has a clearer message than President Obama,” the senator said.
Obama “has supported the ouster of Qaddafi, but seems to have no plan to help the freedom fighters or the rebels to be successful,” said Sessions, who stopped short of calling for a no-fly zone.
On another matter, when asked whether labor unions or businesses have more political and economic power in the U.S. today, Sessions said unions have an edge because of the labor movement’s ability to have a more unified agenda and message.
The business community, he said, splinters often on policy.
“Businesses have often conflicting agendas as to what they favor,” Sessions said. “But there are some things that they unite on.”