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Sunday, May 5, 2013
It’s hard enough to keep up with the goings on in Richmond from Roanoke and nigh impossible to figure out Washington, D.C., based on the mishmash of truncated sound bites and screaming press alerts that spew from our nation’s capital every day.
One might get the impression from recent news reports that Virginia’s two U.S. senators are worlds apart on how to address the national debt.
A Politico story last month quoted Sen. Mark Warner warning that “the issue of this national debt is a greater threat to our nation and our future than any terrorist action.” Last week, Sen. Tim Kaine told the same news service that “Trying to just land on the debt too quickly would really harm the economy.”
Kaine, in town for a visit Wednesday, told me the two Democrats in fact share common views and goals about how to put U.S. finances in order. Kaine said his comment doesn’t mean he’s not prepared to vote for more spending cuts as part of a comprehensive budget deal. Although he’s convinced growth is the “best anti-deficit strategy,” he has voted for new cuts and will again. And he said he agrees with Warner’s overall point, which was that “budgetary uncertainty is a massive threat to national security.”
As members of the Senate Budget Committee, Warner and Kaine both had a hand in shaping the chamber’s first budget in four years, one that includes targeted spending cuts, entitlement reform, new revenues from elimination of tax preferences and infrastructure investments.
“On that Senate budget, we were in lockstep,” Kaine said. “It was really fun to be on the budget committee together. Usually, they don’t put both [of a state’s] senators on a single committee.”
Of course, the real question facing Congress as it confronts another debt ceiling decision this summer is not whether two Democrats from the same state can agree, but whether enough members of the two political parties can do so. In his first few months in the U.S. Senate, Kaine is hopeful he is seeing baby steps toward a bipartisan and more responsible approach to budgeting.
Estimates that the deficit is already shrinking have helped to ease tensions. And Republican leaders’ decision to avoid a debt ceiling fight in January appears to signal a recognition that the harm to the nation’s bond rating and economy aren’t worth any political capital they might gain.
Is Kaine just being his usual optimistic self? Maybe a little. The real difference between him and Warner comes down to personality, not policy. Warner is famously impatient, a condition aggravated by the slow pace of progress in the U.S. Senate. He’s been banging his fists and head against the U.S. Capitol walls since he arrived. Kaine is incurably cheerful.
“I’m having a great time,” he said. “Knowing Mark so well and knowing his complaints, I could adjust my expectations. It’s an expertise job; it’s not an executive job.”
Kaine gives Warner credit for his work to “rebuild the tradition of working across the aisle” and has been quick to join in the effort.
The fruits of efforts by Warner and others are starting to ripen. Kaine believes gains are within reach on immigration reform as well as legislation that would allow states to tax Internet sales, an option Virginia strongly supports as part of its effort to generate more revenues for transportation projects.
His one big disappointment is the Senate’s failure to pass expanded background checks for gun purchases, but he remains committed to resurrecting the issue despite its long-shot status.
His primary focus, however, remains on money matters.
“The big game is trying to find a budget deal,” he said. “If you do it the right way, I just feel like we will send a signal of certainty into a private economy where there’s a lot of cash on the sidelines still waiting to be invested. ... Confidence means economic growth and economic growth means deficit reduction and jobs. That’s Moby Dick that we’re out there searching for.”
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