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Snowe: Politics marred debt ceiling debate

John Clarke Russ | BDN
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Sen. Olympia Snowe talks with the Bangor Daily News editorial board and newsroom staff Monday, Aug. 8, 2011.
By Eric Russell, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe called the recent contentious debate over whether to raise the nation’s debt ceiling “the political version of reality TV,” and hoped it would serve as a wake up call for Congress and the president.

Maine’s senior senator also said last Friday’s decision by credit agency Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the country’s credit rating was discouraging but not surprising because it underscored the inability of policymakers and political leaders to come together.

“It’s disturbing because a capacity to sort through this might have engendered more confidence going forward,” she said Monday in a meeting Monday with editorial staff at the Bangor Daily News.

Snowe touched on a number of topics, including the recent tragedy in Afghanistan and the pending implementation of the Affordable Care Act, but spent most of her time Monday reflecting on what she called the recent failure of Congress.

“It’s really unfortunate because we had a lackluster performance … that does not match the gravity of the times,” she said, adding that the current Congress accomplished less than any since the 1940s.

Congressional leaders and President Barack Obama ultimately reached a compromise last week on raising the debt ceiling and calling for $2.4 trillion in spending cuts. Snowe said the deal should have been reached much sooner to avoid the 11th hour political gamesmanship.

And despite the deal, the senator said she has concerns going forward, particularly with the creation of a congressional “super-committee” that will be tasked to identify cuts and come up with a long-term financial strategy before Christmas.

While some Democrats on Monday laid blame on the tea party for delaying a deal and causing S&P to downgrade the U.S. credit rating, Snowe actually gave tea party leaders credit for forcing the debate over whether the U.S. should continue to raise its borrowing.

Still, she did lament the role politics played in the discussion.

“I had the benefit of remembering, essentially, how it used to work,” Snowe said, recalling her tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan. “That’s not to say that politics didn’t interfere, but we weren’t engaged in so-called permanent campaigns.”

Now, Snowe said, the debate is heavy on politics and light on policy.

“We seem to be mired in that because neither side wants to enter the fray any sooner because of all the political risks,” the senator said. “But there was a time when you focused on issues after the election.”

Those issues, she said, are jobs and economic growth.

It won’t be easy, Snowe said, to move forward on those issues — and restore voter confidence in Congress — as long as people keep getting their cues from the 24-hour news cycles of Fox News and MSNBC.

“People are no longer willing to talk with people with whom they disagree, so it’s harder to work through the disagreements and the impediments,” she said.

Snowe, one of a seemingly dying breed of moderate politicians, is up for re-election next year. She laughed when she was asked why she wants to keep serving Maine within the framework of such a broken system.

“I think it’s my Greek background,” she said. “I never give up.”

After taking a few weeks off in August, Snowe said she looks forward to digging in next month when the Senate reconvenes. Her top priority as a member of the Finance Committee is initiating a massive overhaul of the nation’s tax code.

She also said the nation will need stronger leadership going forward and that starts with President Obama.

“He hasn’t exerted the leadership necessary commensurate with his position,” Snowe said.

“There is only one president. He has the big megaphone.”

About two hours after Snowe’s meeting with the BDN editorial staff, Obama addressed the nation for the first time since the U.S. saw its credit rating downgraded.

“Markets will rise and fall,” the president said. “But this is the United States of America. No matter what some agency may say, we’ve always been and always will be a triple-A country.”

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