Center Seat: Sen. Manchin on budget deal, future of entitlement programs

West Virginia senator takes Center Seat


This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," December 17, 2013. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: Joining us now in our Center Seat, we welcome Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Senator, thank you for being here.

SEN. JOE MANCHIN, D - WV: Thanks for having me.

BAIER: Just passed the budget over the procedural hurdle known as cloture, likely to pass easily in final vote here over the next day.  What about this? A lot of the concern from Republicans was that it takes from military pensions, and they say, like Senator Graham, that, well, it is just not fair. What do you say to him?

MANCHIN: Well first of all, I've been a Bowles-Simpson supporter from day one since I've gotten here three years ago, and I would like to see a bigger deal, because I've always believed that you have to put your financial house in order before you can do anything. I did it when I was governor and let everything else go by the wayside until I knew that we could take care of our priorities based on our values. That's just the way I think it should be done, and we're not getting there.  So which what happened with the budget, we didn't get a perfect budget. It is the first resemblance of any type of a budget, the process that we have that kind of resembles something of normal order going through appropriations. And with that, we're going to work hard to try to fix that with the military.

It is the one percent COLA reduction -- anyone under 62. And you can say those are promises we made and we should be able to keep and you would think in normal times we should. But everybody is vulnerable right now and we have to go try to fix that. But it is what was in front of us, and we don't have any options of walking away and going into a shutdown again.

BAIER: Like Graham and Ayotte, these senators say if there is anybody we should be protecting to find $6 billion a year, it is the military.

MANCHIN: We all feel that way. But the bottom line is, with this being said, that was one of the things worked out between the Democrats and Republicans, and you had 333 vote in the House with that there, and I think we don't have a chance to amend anything. So do you want to go through a shutdown process, is where we would be, or do you move forward and try to fix it when we come back?

BAIER: Charles?

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Senator, on the budget, we seem to be through that. But what we're looking at now is a debt ceiling. We heard Republicans saying they will not let it go by without something being done or something -- if you want to use the word, extracted. Do you think there should be a clean debt ceiling or do you think it would be right for the Congress to use the occasion to do something to reduce our indebtedness?

MANCHIN: Yeah, I'm probably not the right Democrat to ask about a clean debt ceiling because I have not voted. I had to – I got caught in a procedural vote to move it forward. I really think that you have to come to grips with it.

KRAUTHAMMER: And what would you like to see happen at the debt ceiling?

MANCHIN: Well, again, a bigger picture needs to be looked at. And that is when the Bowles-Simpson came in. Charles, as you know, they looked at revenue, they looked at expenditures, they looked at reforms. And all of that has to be taken into consideration. You can't put one side in the box. And what we are doing now, we are just making you vote and take score, trying to use it against you. I would rather fix something, and we have to get together here and come to grips with it. We have to have some reforms.

KRAUTHAMMER: But there is no way that would happen before a debt ceiling?

MANCHIN: The debt ceiling is going to come, right, and there is going to be something put on the table I think by the Republicans.

KRAUTHAMMER: What would you like to see?

MANCHIN: I would like to see long-term reductions, I would like to see a downward path to at least a balanced budget. As a former governor, that is the first thing when we ask the question going into the capitals is, what is the revenue? Once you know the revenues you know what your spending limits are. There is no such control such as that here.

So as a Democrat, and we have many Democrats I believe that would like to see balanced budgets. No one thought we could do it in the 90's and they did it working with a Republican Congress and a Democrat president and it got accomplished. I think we could do it again. I think it could be the greatest confidence builder this country every had to our economy.

GEORGE WILL, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: How do you get to a balanced budget when the deal we just had makes no dent at all in the trajectory of the country and the entitlement state, and your party which whom you are notoriously discordant on occasions, flinches even from even the chained CPI, that is a tiny little adjustment of the way we calculate inflation. If they can't do that, what can they do about the entitlement state?

MANCHIN: Well, George, it makes look at how we operate the entitlements, not looking at taking anyone's benefits away from them. But are the people getting benefits that shouldn't have gotten them? People -- are they getting them under false pretenses and there is no review back for total disability -- for Social Security, disabilities? There is so many things in fraud, waste, and abuse, if we could just get agreement to really go after that, it would be, I think, a blessing.

And why people are afraid -- my concern is, is it going to be there for the next generation? When you look at Social Security, they say if we don't do anything, 2035 or 2037 maybe, and on Medicare is much worse, 2024 or 2026, and then also Social Security disability, 2016. So I don't know how far they can kick the down or how much longer. Sooner over later you got to pay the piper.

WILL: But every day 10,000 more baby boomers become eligible for Social Security and Medicare. And you are on the committee on aging and you speak eloquently about taking care of the elderly, but the welfare is an enormous regressive transfer of wealth to the most affluent age cohort in the country, the elderly, who after a lifetime of accumulation are better off than the young and middle aged people who are paying all these benefits?

MANCHIN: I've always been partial to a means testing. I've always looked at means testing from the standpoint of fairness to it. And I always said my parents worked hard and they were in a little better shape and I've had other relatives that have needed a little bit more assistance, and I don't think my parents would begrudge them whatsoever on the means tested if there's had been a little bit different than someone in more need.

WILL: But the Democratic mantra has been Ted Kennedy's axiom that a program for the poor is a program, because if your means test -- it will look like a program for the poor and the middle class will withdraw its support. Do you reject that?

MANCHIN: Well, we've never tried it so I don't know if it will work.

WILL: We have to try something different.

JUAN WILLIAMS, SENIOR EDITOR, THE HILL: So the Democrats – from the Democrat's perspective on this budget, senator, the complaint has been in order to get Republican votes you could not extend unemployment insurance for those who had long-term unemployment. And therefore, that's the deal that had to be made. But what about people in West Virginia, long-term uninsured, as George Will pointed out early, people still say we are in a recession, how do you feel about not helping them in this Christmas season?

MANCHIN: Juan, I don't think anyone, I mean, you look at it as not being compassionate about people looking for work. You need to look at state by state, what their conditions are. Some states have lower unemployment and some states have higher. They have four tiers right they work within, their one, two, three, and four. We qualify in West Virginia for one, two, and three, not four.

And with that being said, I understand today Dean Heller, our Republican from Nevada, and you had Jack Reed from Rhode Island, are talking about some type of compassionate three-month extension to some of this. But sooner or later, I would just ask when is that unemployment going to be acceptable to when we go back to normal order of 26 weeks?   

WILLIAMS: Well, that's understandable, but I think part of the conversation taking place on the Hill is will Republicans ever accept tax hikes in this current environment, or is that absolutely never going to happen, can you never make a deal with Republicans in which you would say, here, we'll cut some programs but we need some revenue enhancement?

MANCHIN: Juan, here is the thing. We are just trying to get agreement on the definition of revenue. Is revenue when you increase taxes? To me that's revenue. If it is 35 and goes to 36 or 37, that is new revenue. If it is at 35 percent and you go to 31 but you have efficiencies, you close loopholes, and offset some credits and efficiencies, is that revenue? And then if they say, well, that is different. Well, if it's different you are still concerned with how we spend it.

Couldn't Democrats and Republicans agree that we have one tremendous debt problem in our country and they are going to say for every new dollar of revenue, no matter how we get it, 60 or 70 cents will go to debt reduction. The remainder goes to infrastructure, nothing to grow the programs out.  We live within our means, we run it more efficiently. 

BAIER: Senator if you stand by, we have another segment coming up.  More with Senator Manchin, ObamaCare and other issues after a quick time-out.

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