Sen. Mark Warner: 'It's time for us to do the right thing'

Sen. Mark Warner engages in a discussion at the Capitol Visitors Center Auditorium in Washington, D.C.

Kai Ryssdal: There's a lot going on in debt-limit land today, not all of it -- as sometimes happens in Washington -- directly connected to the issue at hand. President Obama's meeting with Congressional leaders today to figure out a way to get the debt limit raised. That's been the main story line for... oh, a while now. But there's something else brewing as well. A huge -- and by huge I mean maybe $4 trillion deficit reduction plan -- being offered up by three Democratic and three Republican senators, the "Gang of Six." The two sets of negotiations are parallel, you could say. They might possibly come to the same end point. Or they might not. Sen. Mark Warner's one of the six in the aforementioned gang. Welcome to the program.

Gregory Warner: Kai, thanks for having me on.

Ryssdal: Let me ask you about the timing of this thing. The president said yesterday we are at the 11th hour, it's a couple of weeks 'til the deadline, so I have to ask: Where the heck have you guys been?

Warner: Kai, let me assure you, valid question. We should have been out three or four months ago. But I'd rather at least be out at this point and the first issue we have to deal with is raising this debt ceiling. But even raising the debt ceiling doesn't get us to that $14.5 trillion debt that we're all looking at and I think this approach that we've put forward is a starting point.

Ryssdal: We'll get to that approach in a minute, but let me ask you about the debt ceiling negotiations. Are you A) surprised or B) embarrassed that we're still talking about this at this point?

Warner: I'm embarrassed. I mean it is remarkable to me - with the financial disruptions going on in the world, with the crisis with the euro -- that we would be playing, in effect, Russian Roulette with the full faith of the credit in the United States and even take the happenstance that we might have a debt downgrade, which would result in an immediate indirect tax increase on every American family and business through higher interest rates. It blows my mind.

Ryssdal: Yeah. Well, let me pursue that just a little bit. I heard you yesterday afternoon on another public radio afternoon program and you kept referring to yourself as the business guy. 'I'm just a business guy, I'm trying to make these numbers work right.' So let me ask you this: As a business guy, would you invest in us right now?

Warner: Listen, I would never go short on the United States of America because we've still got the most open capital markets, we've still got the most entrepreneurial people. And to paraphrase Winston Churchill, you can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they've tried everything else. And we've pretty much tried everything else, so it's time for us to do the right thing now.

Ryssdal: So onto the plan from the Group of Six, the Gang of Six, pick your name. You've been talking to Sen. Reid, you and Sen. Conrad, your fellow members of the Gang of Six, talking to the majority leader about getting some elements of your plan into a debt reduction, debt limit deal. Can that still happen at this hour?

Warner: I'm hopeful. I mean, let me be clear: I want to do nothing that slows down or interferes with raising the debt limit. But to simply have another commission and not take the work that we've done and say hold it, this ought to at least be the starting point or this ought to be a fallback position, or somehow build this in, doesn't make much sense to me.

Ryssdal: Well that's a really good point. And it brings to mind Rahm Emanuel's now infamous quote, former chief of staff to the president, about never letting a crisis go to waste. This is, the plan you have presented, is ambitious. It's got a lot of moving parts. Can the key elements of tax reform and entitlement reform survive absent a comprehensive deal that is forced by the debt limit deadline?

Warner: That's the $64,000 question. At the end of the day, there is a grand bargain here. Major entitlement reform for recognizing that we also have to reform our tax code in a way that raises more revenue. What we have now is a framework that provides, I think, that kind of comprehensive approach. It's not perfect.

Ryssdal: I have to ask you about the politics of it. There is another chamber in the Congress. You've got House Republicans saying no net tax increases. You've got House Democrats saying we're not going to cut or substantially lessen entitlements. What are you going to do?

Warner: Well, I think the numbers at some point are so overwhelming that you've got to find a way to find some common ground. And that's what we're kind of hired to do. Anybody that can read a balance sheet realizes that you're not going to be able to solve this problem on simply one side of the ledger. When spending is at an all-time high and revenues are at a 70-year low, you've got to look at both sides of the balance sheet. And the proposal we have, which is roughly -- depending on how you count interest savings -- 2-3 to 1 of cuts over revenues, I think that's a mix that at the end of the day should pass muster.

Ryssdal: Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, member of the Gang of Six. Senator, thanks a lot for your time sir.

Warner: Thanks for having me, Kai.

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