Saturday, October 19, 2013

TOP STORY >> Pryor, military glad crisis ended

Leader senior staff writer

“I’m hoping it was a turning point,” said Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor on Thursday of the failed efforts in Congress to shut down the government, force the country to default on its debts or else to strip out funding for what is known as Obamacare.

The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party did succeed in shutting down portions of the federal government—including national parks, food inspection and parts of the military—for 16 days until Pryor helped broker a bipartisan compromise that funds the government through Jan. 15 and increases the debt ceiling through Feb. 7.

While 335 civilian employees at Little Rock Air Force Base were sent home for a week before Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called them back, the base is now back at full strength. (See editorial, p. 8A.)

With the compromise agreement signed by President Obama on Thursday morning, “This is what we’ve been anxiously awaiting,” said Col. Patrick Rhatigan, 19th Airlift Wing commander. “During the past 16 days, leaders at all levels strove to lessen the impact and uncertainty of this fiscal challenges on our Airmen and civilian personnel here.”

“Little Rock Air Force Base will remain responsible stewards of the resources entrusted to us by the American taxpayers,” said Rhatigan.

The National Guard has begun calling back 376 furloughed workers, most of whom were in the state Military Department.

“The past few weeks were hard on the Guard. We have a lot of healing to do,” said Maj. Gen. William D. Wofford, the adjutant general for Arkansas, “However, I am inspired by our Guardsmen, civilian employees and communities who came together during this challenging time to get the job done.”

October drill was cancelled for about 10,000 Arkansas Guardsmen, lights were turned off in offices and fuel conserved. The Guard’s helicopters were locked up and maintenance deferred.

With the Tea Party forced to concede on the shutdown, Pryor stopped short of saying the shutdown may have been the peak of Tea Party power and influence.

He said the American public was frustrated by the gridlock on the budget and debt ceiling and that he was proud of the role he played in the bipartisan gang of 14 that helped craft the compromise that saved the day.

“We were able to do a lot of work, so (Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell)knew they had bipartisan support,” Pryor said.

“Out whole goal was to help the two leaders get to ‘yes,’” he said.

Before the shutdown, Pryor already was slated to speak on infrastructure to the Arkansas Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers at the North Little Rock Wyndham Riverfront Hotel. He told them investments in infrastructure create jobs, calling the funding of infrastructure “an investment in the future.”

By way of contrast, he said that in July, his re-election opponent, Fourth Dist. Rep. Tom Cotton said, “The role of the federal government in infrastructure should be limited.”

Pryor praised John Burk-halter, who grew up in Sylvan Hills and is seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, as a great public servant. He is former head of the state Economic Development Commission.

Burkhalter, a civil engineer himself, who just resigned from the state Highway Commission, was invited to speak when it seemed Pryor might be stuck in Washington. He told the assembly of engineers that he was inspired by Arkansas Democrats such as Pryor’s father David, the former governor and senator, Sen. Dale Bumpers and President Bill Clinton, and he said economic development was his top priority.

Pryor said for every dollar Arkansans pay in fuel tax to support highway projects, the state gets $1.40 back from the federal government, and that for every billion dollars spent on infrastructure, 34,000 jobs were created.

“Infrastructure is not possible if you don’t have functioning government,” he said.

“You saw what happened in Washington when a small group of Republicans in the House have been driving the train, and bragged for weeks that they were going to shut down the government—and they did so, for 16 days.

“They brought us to within a day of defaulting on our obligations. They hurt the U.S economy, cost the taxpayers billions of dollars and just completely wasted money. They came across as childish and petty.

“If they want to embarrass themselves, that’s fine, but they embarrassed America. They are sapping our confidence in our country and diminishing America’s prestige abroad.

“In the Senate, we were disgusted. There’s a real sense that that wasn’t going to happen again,” Pryor said.

Asked about the charge that Democrats weren’t willing to work with Republicans on crafting the Affordable Care Act, Pryor said, “That’s a hollow criticism. They were given every opportunity.” He said early on Republican Sen. Charles Grassley helped frame the law, but then dropped out.

He said the House was so dysfunctional that it couldn’t even get a bill to the floor on ending the shutdown stalemate.