PORTLAND, Maine — U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, fresh off being appointed to a special bipartisan committee charged with developing a long-term federal budget, told a Portland audience Thursday the panel will have to overcome polarizing party politics to avoid another round of brinksmanship in early 2014.
As part of the legislation passed late Wednesday to temporarily reopen the federal government and, according to many economists, narrowly avoid defaulting on the country’s debt, a bicameral committee — of which King is a member — must come up with a longer-term budget solution by Dec. 15.
The government was shut down for 16 days before Congress settled on Wednesday’s compromise temporary funding legislation.
King was one of 22 senators named to the panel. Seven House members — four Republicans and three Democrats — also were named to the committee. If that group fails to produce a budget solution, Wednesday’s stopgap measures will expire in February.
“The shutdown cost the government $24 billion and it was done in the interest of saving money,” King told a University of Southern Maine crowd Thursday night. He spoke as part of a weekly political lecture series sponsored, in part, by the Bangor Daily News.
“We were sort of celebrating this morning about having kept the government open for three months,” he said. “The basic issues — ‘Should we keep the government open? Should we pay our bills?’ — should have been taken care of in 15 minutes.”
Maine’s junior senator credited his colleague, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, with playing a key role in bridging partisan divides over the past week to help bring about Wednesday night’s legislation.
But his praise stopped there, and he had plenty of scorn for other elected officials in Washington and a political environment that thwarts good government.
King said gerrymandered congressional districts — where district borders have been drawn over time to solidify party strongholds — and the prevalence of biased news organizations has left almost “no middle ground” in which liberals and conservatives can negotiate.
“More than half of the House districts are gerrymandered to a point where they’re safe districts,” he said. “What that means is the election in those districts are the primaries. If you win the Republican primary in a safe Republican district, you win the election. … The activists tend to control those primaries, especially when there’s low turnout.”
King said many Democrats fear primary challengers who are more liberal and Republicans fear primary challengers who are more conservative, and therefore lean away from each other as opposed to the middle. Further, he said news groups like Fox News and MSNBC feed the partisan political bases.
“When we grew up, we all got our information from Walter Cronkite. Today, there’s a news service that matches your bias,” he said. “It’s human nature to seek out sources of information that agree with your biases. We’re all living in alternative reality universes, where we don’t share the facts.”
King also blamed the recent government shutdown in part on “the rise of the governmental Luddites.”
“There are a bunch of people in government today who hate government,” he said. “The reason this shutdown was hard was because it was considered success for many people in the government. It’s easy to negotiate with someone if you share a goal, to govern and meet the people’s needs. … But if one side really wants the government to fail, that makes it hard.
“The only way anything gets done in Washington is with both parties, and you’d be amazed how few people get that,” King continued. “The Republicans in the House think they run the place. The Democrats in the Senate think they run the place and the president thinks he runs the place.”
Earlier in the day Thursday, King told CNN that Republicans on the newly appointed budget committee may seek changes to entitlement programs in exchange for tweaks of the unpopular spending cuts enacted last spring in the so-called federal sequester.
On Thursday night he touched indirectly on those comments, telling one audience member that the only changes he foresees to Medicare, for instance, would be to make that program more financially stable, not as a negotiating chip in the budget talks.