WASHINGTON — As he left the weekly policy lunch with his fellow Republicans on Tuesday, Sen. Mike Johanns found himself surrounded by reporters looking for the latest update on the budget impasse.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., wandered into the group of journalists to sing the Nebraskan's praises — and take a shot at House Republicans.
“This guy is one of the reasonable, common-sense people around here,” Nelson said of Johanns. “If there were more like him, we'd never be at this point facing default. They are being highly reckless and irresponsible down there on the other end of the Capitol building.”
Johanns has been meeting with a bipartisan group of a dozen senators trying to find a way forward out of the current morass. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, asked him to join the group, which met over the weekend and again on Monday.
The group has been focusing on a short list of key items: reopening the government, raising the debt ceiling, rolling back the medical device tax and setting up additional budget negotiations.
They have been going back and forth, Johanns said, on how to structure the debt ceiling increase, as well as ways to verify income levels for those seeking federal subsidies through the insurance marketplaces set up under the new health care law.
Johanns has been highly critical of the Republican strategy that demanded the defunding of the health care law in exchange for continuing to fund the government or raise the debt ceiling.
He reiterated Tuesday that, for him, the issues related to funding the government and raising the debt ceiling have always been about dollars and cents — looking for ways to rein in spending and get a handle on the national debt.
For example, Johanns talked about the need to hold the line on spending. A new round of cuts known as sequestration is set to hit early next year.
“These are painful cuts, but it forces the debate on where the spending is really occurring — that's entitlements,” Johanns said. “That's my generation starting to access entitlements, us baby boomers, and until we force that debate we're not going to get this government spending problem turned around.”
The bipartisan working group plans to continue meeting, Johanns said, and will remain in touch with Senate leaders from both parties.
Johanns said it will be up to those leaders to bring any ideas to the Senate floor.
“We need to be embraced by leadership,” he said.