Rigell, Forbes: OK budget bill, drop the health fight

By Bill Bartel
The Virginian-Pilot

South Hampton Roads’ two Republican congressmen said Tuesday that it’s time to end the government shutdown by approving a short-term spending bill that does not include changes to the new health care law.

U.S. Reps. Scott Rigell, R-Virginia Beach, and Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake, who both oppose the Affordable Care Act, had voted for House GOP measures that linked approval of a spending bill that kept the government open to also killing or delaying the health care law.

With the Democratic-controlled Senate refusing to negotiate changing the health care overhaul, the two chambers did not reach a deal by midnight Monday, and the new fiscal year began Tuesday without Congress allocating money for government operations.

As a result, large sections of the federal government were shut down. Hundreds of thousands of employees were sent home indefinitely, and others were kept on the job but won’t be paid until Congress approves a new spending plan. Members of the military, who must work, are still being paid.

In separate interviews, Forbes and Rigell said that until late Monday they hoped a deal could be struck to prevent a shutdown. Both legislators have made clear they oppose any effort to shutter the government, particularly because of the effects on Hampton Roads’ defense-dependent economy.

The two said they favor passing a six-week budget – known as a continuing resolution – that already passed muster in the Senate. The stop-gap measure would give Congress until mid-November to agree on a spending plan for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, 2014. If legislators continue to disagree, they could approve another temporary spending bill to keep paying the bills.

Forbes said he wants those budget talks to include changing or abolishing the health care law.

Rigell said he was “unapologetic for the fight that we waged,” before the shutdown, adding that he can only make voting choices based on what is in front of him.

“I am faced with a continuous stream of imperfect alternatives,” Rigell said. “I am not the czar up here. I’m in a collaborative, essentially dysfunctional body…. It is a very, very difficult place to advance a particular cause.”

Forbes said that now is the time to reopen government and focus on larger issues, including preventing deep cuts in defense spending.

“You wake up in the morning and you realize that both teams played really poorly the night before in the game,” Forbes said. “I think that’s what the American people see happening here…. Unfortunately for us, this is not a game. This is real lives of people…. I think there’s enough blame to go around with Republicans and Democrats.”

The most pressing problem, Forbes said, is the threat of automatic defense cuts – known as sequestration – that are entering their second year. The reductions involve slashing $1.2 trillion over 10 years from military and domestic programs.

U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Virginia Democrats, praised the two Republicans for speaking out Tuesday in favor of setting aside the health care law proposals to end the shutdown.

“That’s what we need to do,” Kaine said. “My sense is they understand that a shutdown is horrible…. They stuck with their leadership for a few votes, but now what we need is to move forward for the good of everyone.”

If the continuing resolution can be passed, Kaine said, then negotiators for the House and Senate, which each have approved budget proposals, can try to settle their differences, including concerns about the health care law.

Kaine and Warner have both supported the health care overhaul but have acknowledged that some changes could be needed after it takes effect.

Warner said it’s important not to point partisan fingers when trying to reach agreement on government spending, but he also criticized several House Republican legislators with ties to the small-government Tea Party movement that do not want to compromise on budget matters.

“On this issue, I have not seen this level of irresponsible behavior in all my time in public life,” said Warner, a former Virginia governor.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, a Newport News Democrat, said Republicans could have avoided the government shutdown if they had understood that Democratic leaders would not negotiate away main elements of the new health care law.

Republicans already have gained concessions because the temporary spending bill was based on the GOP budget proposal, he said.

Scott said that if Democrats had given in on the health care law’s demands, opponents wouldn’t stop.

“If they get away with it this time,” he said, “you know they will do it again in six weeks.”

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