U.S. Rep. Bill Owens says he's ready to work with Republicans to tackle several big issues before the end of the year.
Owens won a tough election in New York's 21st Congressional District, edging out Republican Matt Doheny, a businessman from Watertown, for a third term in the House, which convened for four days this week before recessing for Thanksgiving.
The House will be back in session Nov. 27. Owens said he expects Congress to begin negotiations on sequestration, the Bush tax cuts and the 2012 Farm Bill.
"Those are clearly the big issues that we need to get focused on and take some action," he said.
The Enterprise spoke to Owens on Thursday. The following interview has been edited for length.
Adirondack Daily Enterprise: On the national level, people talk about voters giving the president a mandate in the election. If voters gave you a mandate with your re-election, what would it be?
Bill Owens: I would not describe it as a mandate, number one. Number two, I think that the message that people were sending is that they were looking for someone who is going to focus on the facts and focus on bipartisanship. They're looking for reasonable resolutions to the complex problems that we face.
ADE: As far as the Farm Bill is concerned, I know that you and some of your colleagues, like Congressman Chris Gibson, felt like the election and the politicizing of the legislation was one of the main reasons the bill didn't go to a vote in September. Now that the election is over, will it go to a vote this year? What are the repercussions for farmers if it isn't passed?
Owens: (House Majority Leader Eric) Cantor said that they would bring the Farm Bill up after the election. I'm still hopeful that will happen when we return on the 27th. I would think, by that time, they should be in a position to bring that bill forward. ... If that doesn't happen, I think it creates a lot of issues for the Farm Bill going forward. It would have to be reintroduced in the next Congress. I think that that's going to slow the bill down. It may make it an even more divisive piece of legislation. I think everybody on the Agriculture Committee (of which Owens and Gibson are members) believes it needs to be acted on.
ADE: Going back to the question about the impact on farmers - for a farmer in, say, St. Lawrence County, if there isn't a Farm Bill by 2013, are there any additional benefits they will lose?
Owens: The biggest issue, right now, is that with the expiration of the Farm Bill, the (Milk Income Loss Contract) program expired. What that means is, based upon prior legislation, even if you pass a continuing resolution, the amount of reimbursement drops dramatically. The amount of support drops dramatically for farmers. ... The other side of this is, and they're still studying this at the Department of Agriculture, because of the termination of the bill, exactly what it reverts to is a little bit unclear. They're thinking it may revert back to legislation in the 1930s and '40s, which, if that were put into play, could play real havoc with milk prices.
ADE: Let's talk about the fiscal cliff. Lay out for me what you would like to see happen with the Bush tax cuts. You've made it clear that you are willing to compromise. What would would be ideal, for you, and what is your line in the sand as far as compromise is concerned? What about spending cuts to avoid the automatic cuts that come with sequestration?
Owens: I've said all along I would like to see the Bush tax cuts expire for the wealthy, and for me that's (households with more annual taxable income than) $250,000 or $500,000. So if they came back to me with a package that said, "We're going to let the Bush tax cuts expire for everybody making over $500,000," I could deal with that. If they said $250,000, I could deal with that as well. My preference would be to see the $500,000 number, because there would be very, very few people in our district who then would have any potential for paying an increase in taxes.
In terms of what we do in terms of a package of cuts, I think I've also indicated that we've got this General Accountability (Office) report that talks about being able to save $100 billion. If that were done and you allowed the tax rates to rise for people making over $500,000, we'd be well above the $120 billion we need to avoid sequestration, and that clearly is where I want to come out. What other packages people put together in terms of areas we can cut in, I'm very open to any conversation. Clearly we have to make sure that we protect the people who are unable to protect themselves. But there's lots of room, I think, in other areas where we could reduce spending in a responsible way without adversely affecting programs or people.
ADE: What are your thoughts about the resignation of Gen. David Petraeus, and about the Benghazi attack?
Owens: As I line up the issues, I put the Farm Bill, sequestration and the Bush tax cuts at the top of my list. Petraeus and his personal issues, I think he's done the responsible thing by resigning. From my point of view, that issue is now behind us, assuming no other facts come out which indicate that he disclosed any information that he should not have disclosed. I'm going to make the assumption that he did not. I think he's an honorable guy. I think he served the country well. And I'm going to make the assumption that he did not disclose anything that was inappropriate.
Whether or not he should testify on Benghazi? I think he should. I think we do need to know what the CIA was doing and what was going on. But again, that's something which is now a month old or so. I would again focus primarily on the Farm Bill, sequestration and the Bush tax cuts; those are our priorities to avoid the fiscal cliff.
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