ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Joining us now is the Senate Majority Whip, the number two Democrat in the leadership, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. Welcome to the program once again.
SENATOR DICK DURBIN: Good to be with you.
SIEGEL: You and other Senate Democratic leaders seem to regard the House deferring action on the debt ceiling as an olive branch. Meanwhile, House Democrats like George Miller say they're tied to a three-month leash. What's the good part of this deal that House Democrats don't get?
DURBIN: Well, I don't disagree with my friend George. It is something that should be resolved on a longer term basis. How many times have we been lectured to by the Republicans about creating uncertainty in the future of the economy? Well, now we've extended by about 90 days a decision on the debt ceiling. From the Senate Democratic point of view, we're buying what we could get, 90 days of grace, 90 days of opportunity to resolve some differences.
SIEGEL: And what you've bought is a reasonably good deal, you're saying?
DURBIN: It's fair in this respect. Instead of requiring, as some House Republicans wanted, deep cuts in entitlement programs, what they're requiring of us is what we're already going to do, pass a Senate budget resolution. That will be done. And then, we'll have to face this debt ceiling question again.
SIEGEL: As Senate Democrats prepare a budget resolution, first of all, do you assume that tax increases are all finished? That was December. No more of them.
DURBIN: There are different approaches to revenue. Of course, raising tax rates as we did on the top two percent of wage earners at the end of the fiscal cliff negotiation is one way. The other, of course, is to look at the tax code. Each year, we forego about $1.3 trillion in what's called tax expenditures - credits, deductions, special treatments for businesses, individuals. I hope the Senate Finance Committee can find in that $1.3 trillion money to be saved for deficit reduction.
That would be new revenue toward deficit reduction, taken through tax reform.
SIEGEL: Do you assume that a deal with the Republicans this year will have to include some kind of increased revenues of that sort?
DURBIN: If we're serious about more deficit reduction, it has to include more than just spending cuts, it has to include revenue. I was on Simpson-Bowles. I voted for it. Forty percent of deficit reduction came from revenue. At this point, we've done about $800 billion of revenue for $2.6 trillion in deficit reduction. We still have a ways to go here for revenue to be a part of our deficit solution.
SIEGEL: The debt ceiling crisis of 2011 lead to the Budget Control Act, which included, among other things, the supercommittee that failed, the sequestration plan that's terrified Washington ever since. Otherwise there's been no proper budget for four years. Why is it suddenly possible? You're speaking very hopefully about the ability to put together a budget plan in the next couple of months.
Why couldn't you do that over the past few years?
DURBIN: But, keep in mind, August of 2011 when we faced the debt ceiling crisis, the president stepped in and said we will not have a budget resolution, we will have a budget law. And we did. It was voted on by Democrats and Republicans, signed by the president into law. It literally mandated our budget expenditures for two years.
SIEGEL: But before that, you were incapable of approving a budget. Why is it so much easier now than it was then?
DURBIN: I'm not going to say it's easy. It's never easy and no tough choices lie ahead. But I think there is a feeling, and Patty Murray, the new chairman of our Senate Budget Committee, is meeting with her colleagues to put together a budget resolution. It's going to be a fulsome debate and not easy by any stretch. But I think we can get it done this year. I feel more positive about it.
SIEGEL: I just want to ask you about defense cuts. If the sequester took effect, the across-the-board cuts, half a trillion dollars would be cut from defense over 10 years starting March 1st. If that's an excessive amount or if it's too rapid a schedule of cuts, what strikes you as a reasonable amount over how much time to cut defense spending?
DURBIN: Well, I voted for Simpson-Bowles. It called for virtually the same amount of money to be cut over 10 years. Of course, it would call for some sacrifice and change. But winding down our second war here, we face a different threat in the future; we need to be prepared for it. But in terms of saving money within the Department of Defense, I think we can.
What bothers me on sequestration is the across the board, automatic, mindless cuts. It really doesn't take into account some spending that should be virtually eliminated and some that should remain untouched.
SIEGEL: But that level of defense spending cut, as is included in the sequestered, that's OK with you?
DURBIN: It is, if we can do it in a thoughtful, sensible way.
SIEGEL: Well, Senator Durbin, thank you very much for talking with us once again.
DURBIN: Good talking with you. Thanks
SIEGEL: That's Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate majority whip. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.