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Congress is once again locked into a bitter budget standoff. Short-term negotiations between the House and Senate may help avert a federal government shutdown on Oct. 1, but a new debate looms over whether lawmakers will raise the federal debt ceiling later in the month. Kojo chats with the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), about what’s at stake for the Washington region, and for the country, in these debates.
- Chris Van Hollen U.S. House of Representatives (D-Maryland, 8th District)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILater in the broadcast, Maryland and D.C.'s preparations for tomorrow's scheduled roll out of the Affordable Care Act. But first, the political battle to not vet health care law off track and whether it will result in a federal government shutdown. The two chambers of Congress are locked into a standoff over their competing measures to fund the federal government, the debate revolving around the efforts of House Republicans to tie their spending bill to conditions that would scale back the health care law considerably.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe clock is ticking for the chambers to come to an agreement and avert a shutdown of the government, but even if the next 24 hours play out with minimal chaos, a new debate looms, in the weeks ahead, over the federal debt ceiling. You may want to join this conversation by calling 800-433-8850, or you can send email to email@example.com. We're awaiting a phone call from Chris Van Hollen. He's a member of the United States House of Representatives. He's a Democrat from Maryland.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, but if you have questions or comments on this issue, you can give us a call at 800-433-8850. Do you see a way in which the government shut down can still, nevertheless, be averted? 800-433-8850, and if the government is shut down, who do you blame for the shutdown? Do you blame the House Republicans who insist on tying this budget bill to the Affordable Care Act, or do you think that Senate Democrats should be willing, and the President, should be willing to make compromises on the Affordable Care Act in order to avoid a federal government shutdown?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd then, of course, come October 17th, there's the looming issue of the debt ceiling, another decision on whether or not to raise the debt ceiling so that the government can pay its debts. A decision to which the financial markets and the world economy are closely tied, a decision they'll all be watching closely. The possibility of a government shutdown is making them nervous enough, apparently. That will be even more greatly exacerbated if there is a vote on the debt ceiling and that vote on the debt ceiling does not take place for the first time in more than 200 years.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhat's your view? Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Joining us now by telephone is Congressman Chris Van Hollen, a member of the United States House of Representatives. Now, which it's my understanding that we are still trying to get through or he is still trying to get through to us. We're having issues with that phone, but not with the phone on which you can call. 800-433-8850 for your questions or comments on this issue. It is less than 12 hours before the government will be forced to shut down.
MR. KOJO NNAMDI11 hours and 48 minutes is what I make it right by now, by midnight tonight, if no agreement is reached. And there seems to be no agreement in sight at this point, so we'll have to see whether or not that is possible. Let us know your opinion. Do you think this shutdown can still be averted or do you think that the shutdown is now inevitable? And if you happen to be a federal government employee, how is this shutdown likely to affect you? 800-433-8850 is the number to call.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIYou can also send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can send us a tweet at kojoshow, or simply go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. There are those of you who will be saying, we have seen this movie before and we know how it turns out. We knew how in the mid 1990's, there was a government shutdown, and as a result of that, government shutdown, Republicans had to pay a heavy penalty because they were -- House Republicans were, in large measure, blamed for that shutdown.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIs the same thing likely to happen again? House Republicans seem to be hedging their bets, or betting, on the notion that Affordable Care Act is unpopular, certainly in their districts and in other parts of the country. And that they will not be the ones who will be blamed, in this situation, for leading to a government shutdown, and therefore will not have to pay a significant penalty. What do you think? 800-433-8850 is the number to call.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMaybe, I'll see if I can take one of your calls. 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow. Let us go to Tom in Springfield, Virginia. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TOMYes. A simple question. If Congress does shut down the government, are they themselves considered to be essential, and do they get paid while the rest of the government doesn't?
NNAMDIThey will get paid when the rest of the government doesn't. They will continue to receive their benefits when the rest of the government doesn't. No, it does not apply to Congress itself. That, at least, is my understanding. They are not considered government employees, in that sense of the term. What do you think?
TOMThat figures they would fund themselves. Thanks. Bye.
NNAMDIYeah. Thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. We'll move on now to Bill in Arlington, Virginia. Bill, you are on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi Bill, are you there? Let me see if I got Bill this time. Hi Bill, are you there? No, I guess we don't have Bill for the time being. But, 800-433-8850 if you have an opinion on the government shutdown. Do you think it can be averted? Do you think it is now inevitable? What do you think will be the consequences of the aforementioned shutdown? You can send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDILet me see if I can get Bill again in Arlington, Virginia. Bill, you're on the air. Bill, go ahead, please. No, but Bill, apparently, would like to talk about whether there can be a compromise if, in fact, neither side will talk to each other. The Senate decided not to have any session over the weekend, and won't be in session until later today. The likelihood of the two sides speaking to each, at this point, seems to be fairly remote, as in probably not going to happen. Bill, is that you that I'm hearing there?
NNAMDIBill in Arlington, Virginia. Is that you? No, I don't think that's Bill. I'll put Bill back on hold. Let's see if we can get Harry in Washington, D.C. Harry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HARRYHey, Kojo. Thanks very much. Appreciate taking the call. I just wanted to say that, you know, everyone's focusing on the continuing resolution and the brouhaha this weekend, but this all started a long time ago. If I'm not mistaken, both the House and Senate passed budgets, you know, back in the late winter or early spring, but the GOP and the Senate never pointed any (unintelligible), so they were never able to reconcile their budgets.
HARRYAnd, if I'm not mistaken, I don't think the House has passed any appropriations bills at all this year. So, if they had done their job back when they should have done it, we'd never be in this position today, and I think people are, you know, by saying who's to blame for the continuing resolution, they're really missing the first three acts of this opera. If the GOP had done its job in the House and then the Senate, we wouldn't have this problem today.
NNAMDIWhy do you think they missed the first three acts of this opera? Because they were looking to Act 4 and Act 4 only, because of their continuing determination to get rid of Obamacare, having voted in the House more than 40 times to try to get rid of it?
HARRYWell, I think that there's a lot of dynamics going on, but I do think it's the Tea Party that just seems to have its hackles up on almost everything. They couldn't pass the Transportation Bill, they couldn't pass the Appropriations Bill, and I'm not sure all those things were done to set up this continuing resolution, but they've certainly taken advantage of it, haven't they?
NNAMDISo it would appear. Thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Iman in Chantilly, Virginia. Iman, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
IMANGood afternoon, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I'd like to the Congressmen. In 2012, Diane Sawyer interviewed John Boehner. The question was, in his word, he say that Obamacare is the last -- it's law of the land.
IMANWhat change, what part he doesn't get it? Does he think the American people are ready to play games? Is this -- when they shutting down the government. And no matter what you do, Congressmen -- these people, they not ready to work, no matter how you slice it and how you work with. And they just want -- go ahead.
NNAMDIThe general reporting, the general opinion seems to be that Congressman Boehner, House Speaker Boehner has a caucus that he has lost control of, that he has not been able to instruct that caucus to follow his direction. In fact, the caucus, in the view of many, has been leading the House Speaker on this issue, leaving him with virtually no room to negotiate, at this point. Thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Mickey. Mickey is in Oxen Hill, Maryland. Mickey, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICKEYHi. How do you negotiate with someone who doesn't want to talk to you?
NNAMDIWell, who doesn't want to talk to whom, Mickey?
MICKEYWell, the way I'm looking at this is that you have a group of people who want to shut down the government every time they don't like something that's happening.
NNAMDIAnd who would that group of people be?
MICKEYEvery time. That would be the Republicans.
NNAMDIThe House Republicans.
MICKEYWhy can't we just -- why can't the media just say honestly what's going on. They say, well, this is a Washington problem. Congress is not talking to each other. Let's be honest. This is a group of people who don't want this country to work, and we should ask them, why don't they want this great country, the United States of America, to work for everyone?
NNAMDIWhy do you think they don't want it to work?
MICKEYI don't think it's just a race issue. I think there is some racism. I think they don't like Democrats. I think the people who they're representing -- I don't know what part of America they live in, but it's not an America that I grew up in, that I've told my grandchildren about. This is just very, very sad.
NNAMDIOkay, Mickey, thank you very much for your call. I'll go to Craig in Washington, D.C., who, it would appear, has a personal investment in this issue. Craig, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CRAIGHi Kojo. Thanks for taking my call.
CRAIGI'm an independent contractor. My wife works for the National Institute of Health. And she works because we need the money, and I think playing games with peoples' lives like this, over disagreements about Obamacare, is unconscionable. It really effects, it affects real people. It affects my children. It certainly affects her faith in the government she's worked for for 20 years in public health. And, I feel like they're -- what's happening, that this small cabal of Republicans, in the House of Representatives, is like a band of pirates, and they have dropped into my family, and they're pillaging our coffers.
NNAMDIGo ahead, please.
CRAIGAnd I feel it's a kind of piracy, and it has tremendous effects on hundreds of thousands of people that work for the government. And, quite frankly, they need to find a better way to deal with their petulant infighting than to wreck American families' personal economies this way.
NNAMDIOkay, Craig, thank you very much for your call. I'm gonna try to talk with Congressman Chris Van Hollen now, see if we get him on the air. Congressman Van Hollen, are you there?
REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLENKojo, I'm here. Can you hear me?
NNAMDIYes we can. The clock is ticking, Mr. Congressman, and unless the two chambers reach an agreement today, we'll be looking at the first shutdown in nearly two decades, by this time tomorrow. At this point, how do you see the next, oh, 12 hours playing out?
HOLLENWell, I've been listening to the callers, and share their absolute frustration with the situation. It's a disgraceful situation we're facing. There is one very simple way out today, which is for the Speaker of the House to simply allow the House of Representatives to vote on the Clean Government Funding Bill that will be sent over by the Senate. I'm absolutely confident that there is a majority vote here in the House of Representatives to do it, if the Speaker would allow democracy to work its will.
HOLLENAnd so the question is will he allow that vote? Will he allow the people's House to actually vote on that or will he decide instead to amend it with another measure to try to defund or derail the affordable care act and send it back to the Senate? So the choice is his. So far he seems to have turned control of the House of Representatives over to this very extreme right-wing Tea party faction.
NNAMDIThere are people who…
HOLLENSenator Cruz is running the show over here, but hopefully he will change his mind for the good of the country.
NNAMDIPeople who don’t understand how the first House rules work will say, on the one hand, you say that there's a majority of the House that's willing to vote for this. On the other hand you say that there is a -- in your view -- small, right-wing caucus that is somehow blocking the ability of the House Speaker to do this or blocking the willingness of the House Speaker to do this. Can you explain that?
HOLLENAnd that is the million dollar question here. Actually, a lot more than that, people's lives are at stake. And so we have 435 members of the House. The Speaker is free any time to allow a vote on the bill to keep the government open. He is deciding on his own initiative not to allow that vote to happen in order to placate and cow tow to this extreme right-wing part of his caucus. Maybe he's afraid that he will somehow lose his Speakership down the road. But the result is a total abdication of leadership on his part.
HOLLENLook, if the Republicans want to have a civil war in their party, they can go out and have it, but they should not do it at the expense of the country. They shouldn't do it at the expense of dedicated federal employees. And, you know, require the country to suffer because of this fight within the Republican Party between the Tea party faction and the rest.
NNAMDIMr. Congressman, Republicans in the House make the argument that the measure that they passed over the weekend was, in fact, a compromise and that if there is a shut down it will because Senate Democrats were unwilling to bend. How do you see it?
HOLLENWell, I think everybody knows that the Affordable Care Act is the law of the land. It's already helping millions of Americans and starting on October 1st it will allow millions of Americans who did not have access to affordable care to begin to sign up for these affordable health plans. So what Republicans are trying to do is nullify that law that's been upheld by the Supreme Court and was heavily contested in the last election, and doing that by threatening to shut down the government.
HOLLENNow, their latest proposal says let's not allow the Affordable Care Act to take place for a year, despite the fact that these exchanges are up and running and ready to open on October 1st. Kojo, we've been very clear that we're happy to make adjustments in the Affordable Care Act. There are some glitches that need to be ironed out, but they've taken the position that it's all or nothing. You've got to either live with it as is or take it off the books, whether for one year or permanently, and threatening to shut down the government if they don't get their way.
HOLLENAnd that's just not the way the government is supposed to operate and if the Speaker would demonstrate a little leadership we could get a straight up or down vote on this question in the House and make sure we keep the government open.
NNAMDICongressman Van Hollen, I read in a interview that you gave to the Washington Post's Ezra Klein where you said your concern all along has been whether House Republicans would pivot from this debate about funding the government and double down in a few weeks by using the debate about whether to raise the debt ceiling as another opportunity to chip away at the Affordable Care Act. Who do you think will have leverage as the deadline on the debt ceiling approaches?
HOLLENWell, this is another example of their willingness, again, pushed by this very extreme Tea party caucus, to put the country's full faith and credit at risk. What do I mean by that? The United States government has always paid its bills on time. We've always met our obligations, whether it's to folks on Social Security, whether it's to folks on Medicare, whether it's paying our troops or whether it's paying bond holders, people who have, you know, purchased Treasury notes.
HOLLENWhat Republicans are saying is if they can't get their way, in terms of defunding the Affordable Care Act, ending Obamacare, their next move, after shutting down the government, is to prevent the United States from paying its bills. And that goes from a very bad, irresponsible action to one that is totally dangerous, with respect to the economy. That would send a shockwave through the economy, not just here, but across the world, if the United States were to not meet its full faith and credit.
HOLLENAnd I should emphasize, Kojo, this is to pay bills that are already due in owning, that Congress has already voted on. These are obligations the United States already has. And, again, they're threatening to use this incredibly explosive device to try and get their way on the Affordable Care Act and a whole bunch of other things.
NNAMDIWhat lessons have you learned, Congressman Van Hollen, from that last debate about the debt ceiling? You were part of the so-called super committee that was put together to come up with the spending cuts that would have helped to avert the sequester. How is this standoff any different from those you've sat at the table on in the past?
HOLLENWell, there are a couple of things that have changed. First of all, of course, we had an election in between, where the president was reelected, where the president said he's going to implement the law of the land, the Affordable Care Act. And Mitt Romney took the opposite position and, you know, the president won fair and square and this is the law of the land. And so Republicans are now demanding -- this is a new demand that they didn't have back then, to get rid of the Affordable Care Act.
HOLLENAnd the really sort of strange thing about it is that if you actually repeal the Affordable Care Act, you will increase our national deficit and debt. That's what the director of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office told the budget committee just this week. I serve on that committee. And very ironically, and frankly, very hypocritically, the House Republican budget only comes to balance in 10 years because in their budget they keep big parts of Obamacare. They keep big parts of the Affordable Care Act.
HOLLENThey keep the Medicare savings and the revenues they assume coming rely on the same revenues that would come in under the Affordable Care Act, that same level.
HOLLENAnd so it's totally, it's totally contradictory to say on the one hand you've got to get rid of the Affordable Care Act and then have a budget that only balances because of the Affordable Care Act.
NNAMDISpeaking of which, tomorrow is the aforementioned October 1st, when the health care exchanges roll out. Your state's done a lot of work to get its exchange ready. What concerns do you have about the states that have opted to stay out of it and have the federal government operate all or part of their exchanges, such as Virginia?
HOLLENWell, as you said, Maryland has been working on this and I'm hoping that goes very smoothly. In Virginia, because they opted out, the federal government will be running the program there. And I think they're, you know, they're ready to get up and running. I don't expect this to be flawless, but I do believe that it will be put in place in a way that dramatically expands people's access to affordable care. But, you know, you're raising a really important point here, Kojo, which is in the past, after these political battles have been had over various issues, people have tried to work together to make sure that the American people got the benefit of these laws, whether they had originally been for them or against them.
HOLLENHere you have an active, ongoing effort to sabotage a law that, again, according to the Congressional Budget Office, will provide an additional 25 million Americans with access to affordable healthcare. When the prescription drug law was passed, Part D of Medicare, Democrats didn't like the way it was designed, but once the law was passed Democrats worked with Republicans to implement the law, not to sabotage that law. And so it's a very different situation here, where you have some governors actively trying to undermine the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, even for their own citizens.
NNAMDIChris Van Hollen is a member of the United States House of Representatives. He's a Democrat from Maryland, ranking Democrat the House Budget Committee. Congressman Van Hollen, thank you for joining us.
HOLLENWell, thank you for having me. And, Kojo, if I could just emphasize one thing.
HOLLENWhich is that you've had Republican senators, like Senator Burr of North Carolina, say that this idea of shutting down the government to try and stop the Affordable Care Act is "the dumbest idea" he ever heard. Senator McCain called it irrational. So this is not a situation where you've just got, you know, Democrats and Republicans fighting. This is a situation where one faction of the Republican Party has taken the reigns and the Speaker has handed them over to them, and this is the kind of result you get. It's time for everybody to come back and try and negotiate this.
HOLLENI heard one of your callers make an important point, which is we've been trying to actually go to a negotiation on the budget for months and months and months. I introduced a bill asking the Speaker to the appoint the negotiators to the Budget Conference Committee. He said no. And in the Senate, Republicans -- again, the same Tea party Republican senators blocked the Democrats from appointing conferees. We should have been negotiating this for the last five or six months rather than allowing the strategy that pushed the country to the wall, and then made these outrageous demands.
NNAMDISenator Olympia Snowe of Maine, being one of the later Republican senators to also be against the House Republican approach to this.
NNAMDISenator Van Hollen, thank you very much for joining us.
HOLLENThank you, Kojo. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIChris Van Hollen is a Democrat from Maryland, ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. We're going to take a short break and when we come back, Maryland and D.C.'s preparations and Virginia's for tomorrow's scheduled rollout of the Affordable Care Act. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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