By Tom Bell
Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine said Thursday that he will try to bring Democrats and Republicans together in the coming weeks to develop a budget agreement that gets the nation's debt under control.
I hope I can be a bridge," said King, who was appointed late Wednesday to a special bipartisan committee that will have the task of finding ways to reduce the federal deficit and boost the economy.
The committee, a product of this week's deal to reopen the federal government and avert a potential default, has been given a mid-December deadline to come up with a working agreement.
King was highly critical of Congress on Thursday while speaking at the University of Southern Maine in Portland as part of an eight-week speaker series focused on how politics have changed in Maine and the nation.
King said the recent crisis, which led to a 16-day shutdown of the federal government and nearly caused the United States to run out of enough cash to pay its bills, was "ridiculous and totally unnecessary."
He said the crisis was a product of a politically polarized environment that has become dominated by money.
For some House Republicans, shutting down the government was not just a threat but a desired outcome, King said. "They don't want to govern."
The system of checks and balances established by the U.S. Constitution has worked well for the nation because there has been common interest in providing an effective government, King said. But when a group of representatives isn't interested in governing, "it's ridiculously easy to screw up the system."
King said it's harder to reach compromises in Washington now because senators and representatives don't know each other personally, as they did in the past, when they would attend the same parties.
He said most of them return to their home states every weekend and spend much of their time raising money for the next election.
King also blamed the "balkanized" news media, which causes people to get news from partisan outlets. "We are living in an alternative-reality universe where we don't share the facts," he said.
Regarding the budget deficit, King said discretionary portions of the federal budget are under control, such as spending by agencies and the military. The problem, he said, is that increasing health care costs are making entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid unsustainable. Also, health care costs for federal workers and retirees keep rising, he said.
They key to reducing the federal deficit, he said, is to find ways to lower the cost of health care -- not just shift costs.
The Maine Public Broadcasting Network will broadcast a recording of King's speech on its radio network at 1 p.m. Wednesday.