Kurt Schrader and Blue Dog Democrats offer middle ground to prevent government shutdown

Mar 30, 2011
In The News
by Charles Pope

Rep. Kurt Schrader steps into the poisoned atmosphere of congressional budget talks today, offering an alternative spending blueprint he hopes will avert a government shutdown while shrinking historic deficits.

The plan carries the backing of the Blue Dog Democrats, a group of fiscally conservative lawmakers who hope to serve as a bridge between increasingly polarized Republicans and Democrats who are negotiating a spending deal. If the negotiators fail, the government could shut down April 9 when the current budget expires.

In an interview Tuesday before the plan's release, Schrader, a Democrat from Oregon's 5th District, said the proposal includes elements that both sides like. It calls for cutting the nation's $1.5 trillion annual deficit by an average of $400 billion each year over 10 years. It says that the size of the federal government should be reduced and demands that the country's expanding debt be attacked by cutting spending and reforming the tax code as well as costly entitlement programs.

Schrader, who honed budgets in the Oregon Legislature before he was elected to Congress, says the parties need to get past "the rhetoric" of the usual political blame game. But he concedes that a government shutdown may come first.

"I bet we shut the government down," he said Tuesday. "We need to do that to get to the next step, which is, how do you solve the problem?

"I'm not in favor of shutting the government down," he added. "That's the a-ha time when people will say, let's deal with this."

The Blue Dogs have 26 members today compared to 54 before the election. Many are like Schrader, representing swing districts with a more conservative profile, making Democrats constantly vulnerable. The Blue Dogs say that also puts them a middle ground that can forge compromise.

"Everything is on the table; we're going to try and support whoever – Republican or Democrat – who's willing to come to the table in a global, comprehensive way," Schrader said.

That approach is different than the one offered by Republicans, who favor sharp cuts to domestic spending except defense. Democrats say that is a ruse, because domestic funding accounts for less than 16 percent of all spending. They favor including defense.
The Blue Dog plan would cap federal spending at 2008 levels by 2013. Republicans want to scale back spending to 2008 levels, too, but unlike the Blue Dog's "glide path," their cuts would be immediate. Critics say that's too fast and will damage the economy's fragile recovery.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican, told reporters Tuesday that deep cuts must be achieved and that "time is up" for another short-term deal to keep the government running.

"I think we ought to be finding as many spending cuts as we possibly can, consistent with the desire of our members," Cantor said.

Across the Capitol, the spokesman for the Senate's top Democrat, Majority Leader Harry Reid, offered an immediate and equally biting response.

"Sitting on Senator Reid's desk right now is a serious proposal that cuts $70 billion in government spending while protecting America's economic recovery," spokesman Jon Summers said. "If Republicans are truly interested in forging a bipartisan agreement that avoids a government shutdown, they should come back to the negotiating table and look at what's in the proposal."

That is the vortex Schrader enters. Whether the Blue Dog's proposal has any impact – or even gets much notice –is unclear. Schrader concedes the proposal might leave his Democratic leadership cold, since it demands that lawmakers consider changes to entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. And Republicans are likely to be leery with the pace of cuts, which is slower than they want.

Schrader said he's ready to engage. "I think it's natural for the Blue Dogs -- we are that moderate middle between the left and right -- for us to put a toe in the water."