by Kent Warneke
The nation's budget deficit and growing debt is a crisis that no longer can be ignored, U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns said while in Norfolk on Wednesday.
"We're now to the point that this problem has to be solved, but where it shakes out, who knows," the Republican senator said in an interview with the Daily News.
Prior to hosting a town hall meeting Wednesday afternoon at Prenger's, Johanns told the Daily News that he's disappointed in President Barack Obama for not taking a leadership role in helping Congress address the nation's financial woes.
During his State of the Union address, the president "could have stood up then, but it was more of the same -- a nip and tuck here and there. He has chosen not to lead the effort, so it will be up to the Senate and House to provide the needed leadership. The president took the easy-way-out approach."
What Americans need to realize is that because 80 percent of federal government spending is wrapped up in just five areas -- Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, defense spending and interest on the nation debt -- it is mathematically impossible to balance the budget by simply targeting area of discretionary spending.
That means that virtually all Americans will be affected by cutbacks in spending that are needed to control the runaway federal government, Johanns said.
"We're all going to have to give up things," he said. "Every piece of the budget is going to be affected."
Even though the president has failed to step up and lead the way, Johanns said Nebraskans should be encouraged that a group of bipartisan senators -- of which Johanns was one of the first members -- has formed and is pledged to making the difficult decisions needed to address government spending. And the Republican-controlled House already has indicated its willingness to tackle the issue.
"I see this as a year of opportunity," Johanns said. But if federal lawmakers wait until 2012, then election-year politics likely will get in the way of significant decisions, he added.
"I'm hoping for serious proposals to come forth" out of the Senate, which is still controlled by Democrats by a 53 to 47 margin, Johanns said. "All I'll ask of the president is please don't stand in the way of this. Please join us."
On other topics, Johanns said it's probably not realistic to think that the new federal health care reform law will be repealed or defunded.
"If I were king for the day, I'd repeal it," he said with a smile.
But the Senate's 53 Democrats all are in favor of the reform legislation, Johanns added, so he believes the real battle will be in the court system where the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately will likely rule on constitutionality issues that center on the mandate that all individuals have to purchase health insurance.
Johanns said recent events in Egypt are encouraging because the nation, in the months ahead, may have a true opportunity to bring democracy to the Middle East nation.
In Libya and Iran, however, political violence could erupt at any time, he said.
"The people there have been repressed for so long and now, because the world is so connected, they are realizing that it's not right not to have free elections and democracies. The genie is out of the bottle, and I don't think it can be put back in," Johanns said.
What that means, however, is that the world is "probably in for a wild ride for a while," he said.
The town hall meeting drew about 75 people who heard Johanns speak on federal budget issues and financial concerns before opening the session up to questions from those in attendance.