WASHINGTON — Although they have the same goal of a balanced budget, Sen. Mark Pryor and Rep. Tom Cotton share little else in common when it comes to the federal budget.
The contrast between the two Arkansas lawmakers came into sharp focus last week as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan unveiled a plan that calls for $5.1 trillion in cuts to domestic programs to balance the budget within 10 years.
Cotton, a Republican from Dardanelle, said he plans to vote for the Ryan budget when it comes up for a vote this week in the House. While a Senate vote is unlikely, Pryor said he opposes the Ryan budget plan.
Cotton is challenging Pryor for the Senate in what is being billed as one of the most highly contested races nationally in 2014. A Cotton victory could shift control of the Senate away from the Democrats.
Ryan’s "Path to Prosperity" closely follows the plan he outlined two years ago. Among its key provisions are: a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, no new taxes, substantial reductions to human service programs like food stamps, and significant Medicare reforms.
The House Budget Committee last week approved the bill along party lines. A floor vote is scheduled for this week.
"Like the previous budgets, it does some pretty important things," Cotton said. "It solves our debt crisis by getting back to balance within 10 years. It helps to save Medicare … and it also begins to rebuild our military from some of the drastic cuts they’ve faced in recent years."
Pryor sees it differently.
"From the summaries I’ve seen I am opposed to it. It has a lot of concepts in it that they have tried before. I think they are bad for the country. I think they are bad for Arkansas," he said.
In issuing his 99-page plan, Ryan proposed some of the same budget saving measures that he has offered in previous years such as cuts in Medicaid, food stamps, Pell Grants, farm subsidies and assistance to rural airports while sparing military spending.
"This is a plan to balance the budget and create jobs, and it buildings off a simple fact: We can’t keep spending money we don’t have," said the Wisconsin representative.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the ranking Democrat on the budget committee, criticized Ryan’s plan as reckless attack on domestic programs that support education and research as well as an assault on the nation’s safety net for the elderly and poor.
"This budget is the Republican declaration of class warfare — it protects the elites at the expense of the rest of the country," said the Maryland lawmaker.
A core complaint for Pryor is that Republicans rely on deep cuts to social programs to balance the budget without considering any tax increases.
"They are going to be cutting a lot of programs that we use in Arkansas," he said. "The money has to come from somewhere so suddenly things like school lunch programs, Medicare, Medicaid start to be on the chopping block in terms of taking very deep cuts."
Cotton says that raising taxes to balance the budget is the wrong approach.
"We can’t keep raising taxes every time he (President Obama) wants to spend more money on welfare programs," Cotton said. "The way we get more revenue, to close the deficit, is not to increase taxes but rather to reform our tax code – make it more sensible and let people make decisions about their own money."
Cotton points to past experiences where reductions in capital gains tax rates led to increased revenue, as an example.
As to reductions in domestic programs, Pryor says Arkansas families would suffer through lost services. A clear example would be the proposal to turn Medicare from a guaranteed health care program for seniors into a one that provides seniors with a subsidy to purchase their own coverage.
"It saves money to the government by shifting the cost to seniors. That is what this is really about," he said. "Seniors would have to pay more in our state."
Pryor says it is not feasible to expect Arkansas seniors living on Social Security to purchase private insurance with a government voucher.
"If you want to continue to provide health care to our seniors, which I do, you have to protect the integrity of Medicare as it exists today," he said.
Cotton says the Ryan proposal would not change Medicare for seniors now on the program or those nearing retirement but would provide an option to seniors from the traditional plan.
"Seniors will have the option to choose traditional Medicare from a menu of options. So, the Democrat claims are totally false. Medicare will be an option and seniors can stay on it but frankly, as we’ve seen with Medicare Advantage, seniors prefer to see competition for their health care dollars – and that helps restrain costs and give seniors better quality care," Cotton said.
Cotton also says that the spending reductions to human service programs results from reforms to eligibility and performance designed to break long-term dependency to the social safety net.
"We want to get people who are in need the assistance they need in their hour of need. But we also want to give them the right incentives and the right skill sets and training to get off food stamps or get off disability or off welfare," Cotton said.
"We don’t want to be in a world where we continue to pay the grocery bill for one out of seven Americans. We want to have that program declining," he said. "Spending declines, when enrollment declines."
While this week’s vote won’t result in an immediate repeal of the Affordable Care Act, Cotton says it is important to be on the record against the law.
"We need to articulate our vision of how we would repeal Obamacare and replace it with more patient specific reforms like allowing people to purchase insurance across state lines or reforming medical health practices liability rules," he said.
Pryor says that the Affordable Care Act is far from perfect but that repealing the law is the wrong approach.
"We need to go in and fix the things that are wrong with it and I’ve sponsored legislation to do that. And, I probably will sponsor some more by the time we are all over with this," Pryor said.
Repeal would put in jeopardy benefits that many Arkansans are getting from the law, he says. More than 140,000 Arkansas are getting insurance through an expansion of Medicaid. About 30,000 have insurance through a state exchange. Many parents can now keep adult children between 18 and 26 on their plans.
"Give me something better and I’ll vote for it. But they (Republicans) have not offered anything," Pryor said. "They like to complain about the Affordable Care Act but they are not offering a solution."