Craig When the U.S. Senate passed a $3.5 trillion spending plan April 3, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., was one of the 55 who gave their support.
The plan would keep the government from spending as much money as President Barack Obama's administration proposed - and also scales back some requested tax cuts - but it endorses two of the president's most far-reaching campaign goals: reforming health care to expand coverage, and reforming the energy industry to promote clean fuel production.
Before a final spending plan is approved, a House and Senate conference committee will try to resolve some of the differences between their respective packages.
Among the differences are how to pay for overhauling the nation's health care system, and how to spend revenue generated by a cap and trade system on the energy industry.
A cap and trade system - which sets limits on greenhouse gas emissions and forces companies to buy credits for extra emissions - could generate $50 billion to $300 billion a year by 2020, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Federal projections estimate health care reform, as presented, could add $1 trillion to the national budget within 10 years.
Q: Was there any aspect of the budget that you disagreed with?
A: Well, sure. Nobody agrees with everything in a piece of legislation. I think what happened with that legislation was the president presented his budget, and then the Congressional Budget Office did an analysis of the economy that came out about a month after the president's budget went in. What it showed was the economy was actually doing much more poorly than people had thought, than the administration had thought.
Mark Udall and I both became part of a group of senators that were meeting that represented people from the most conservative Democrat in the caucus to one of the most liberal Democrats of the caucus, and a bunch of folks in between, to make sure that under the circumstances with the numbers coming out the way they were, they we were really going to accomplish the fourth objective that the president had in his budget.
His objectives were to work on energy, to work on health care, education and to make sure we put us on a path of deficit reduction, knowing that it took us a long time to get us into this place and it'll take us some time to get out.
It was that fourth piece of it that we were really spending time on.
The budget that was passed by the Senate, not the House, but the Senate budget takes our deficit from $1.9 trillion, which it is today, to $508 billion in 2014, which is still too high in my view, but it's at least movement in the right direction.
If you ask me one thing, I wish that we'd been able to do even more on deficits, but I think in view of where we are, that's as far as we could have gotten with this budget.
Q: You said your litmus test for supporting legislation is to be able to explain your reasoning to an average family, so what would you tell them about the choices in the budget to expand health care by an estimated $1 trillion and also institute a cap and trade system to help pay for that, which would increase energy costs for consumers?
A: First of all, it's needed because our small businesses and our families cannot sustain another decade of double-digit increases every year, in terms of health care.
I actually believe that health care reform is something that's going to lead to a balancing of our budgets, not additional investment in what we're spending on health care, and, in fact, I don't think there is any other way that you can deal with the national debt problem other than by reforming health care, because it's the biggest driver of Medicare and Medicaid, which are the largest entitlements in our federal budget. Those grow every year because of the increases that occur in health care.
What we will see, is that if we have an approach to health care reform that actually makes sense - which is an open question - but if we have one that actually makes sense, what we're going to find is it actually saves us money over the medium-term. The short-term, we'll lose some fixed-cost increases, but over the medium-term it will reduce costs. Over the long-term, it certainly will. In fact, I would argue that we're not going to be able to get out of the deficit/debt situation we're in unless we address health care. It's also an enormous drag on our economy.
The cap and trade discussion, as I said in there (at the town hall meeting), is at its very early stages.
The balance that's trying to be struck is one between recognizing the true costs of the way we produce energy right now in the United States, and also what it's going to take to be able to free us from the dependence on foreign oil.
That's going to be a combination of lots of things. It's going to be a combination of our natural gas industry, which is going to have a huge role to play in that, and the people that are in Colorado that are interested in wind and sun.
But it's also going to require us to figure out a way to finance the transition - or, the combination is a better way of saying it - and we just haven't figured out what the answers on that are going to be yet.
I don't think the exact system as proposed by the president is likely to be the system of financing that is embodied in the legislation in the end.
Q: Is there any way to achieve those goals without raising energy costs for consumers?
A: I don't know the answer to that. I think that would be very challenging.
Questions submitted by Collin Smith. He can be reached at 875-1794 or firstname.lastname@example.org.