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Norfolk Daily News: Johanns: Action needed soon on debt

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Location: Unknown

By Kent Warneke

Talking about the national debt and the U.S. budget deficit is important, but at some point, action is required, U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns said.

"I think the low approval rating for members of Congress is largely because citizens feel we're not getting things done," said the Republican senator during an interview with the Daily News.

But for action to be taken -- which will require difficult decisions and sacrifices -- it will mean partisanship will have to be put aside long enough to effectively address the problem and put a long-term solution in place, he said.

"It's going to take the vote of 60 senators to do this, and I don't see any one party having 60 votes by itself for a long time," Johanns said.

Johanns is part of what's known as the "Gang of 8" -- four Republican and four Democratic senators who have been meeting regularly to discuss the debt. He's encouraged by the progress they've made in moving toward consensus on difficult issues.

And calling those issues difficult may be putting it mildly.

To effectively address the debt issue, Johanns said he feels the nation will have to reform the U.S. tax code, including broadening the tax base. More people or more things need to be taxed, but if that's done, there also will be the opportunity to lower tax rates, he said.

Government entitlement programs also will have to be reformed. "Nothing should be off the table," Johanns said.

That includes potentially increasing the retirement age before individuals are eligible for Social Security benefits; raising the cap on income that is taxed; implementing means testing on those applying for Medicaid benefits; and increasing Medicaid premiums for those able to pay.

"You also will have to give governors greater flexibility in designing a Medicaid program that works for their state instead of having their hands tied," he said.

Johanns said he estimates there currently are 45 members of the U.S. Senate who are serious about doing what needs to be done to address the debt issue. "They recognize the seriousness of the situation," he said.

But without 50 senators to pass legislation, or 60 to withstand a veto, progress won't be made, he said.

During the interview, Johanns also touched on:

-- A town hall meeting in Pierce earlier Thursday afternoon was attended by about 50 people. Johanns said one of the topics he stressed in that meeting was drought relief and to reassure individuals that Congress will act to provide appropriate relief.

-- On legislation designed to require sales tax collections on retail sales by catalogs and online retailers, Johanns said, "We are digging deep into this issue. The unfairness is apparent." Traditional retailers have long argued that it is unfair to not require sales tax on online sales.

-- On postal reform, the Republican lawmaker said he doesn't expect the U.S. House to pass a bill yet this calendar year. The Senate already has done so, but he voted against it. The U.S. Postal Service is "really headed to trouble," without genuine reform. Johanns said he is in favor of giving postal authorities "the ability to make the tough decisions" to improve the situation. The Senate bill, in his opinion, tied the hands of postal officials too greatly.

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