Cotton, Pryor discuss next budget talks, health care roll out, student loans


LITTLE ROCK — U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor said Friday he hopes another standoff and government shutdown can be avoided in the next round of budget talks, but his likely GOP challenger, U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, did not rule out future attempts to link a budget deal to a rollback of the law known as Obamacare.

Pryor, D-Ark., and Cotton, R-Dardanelle, were in Little Rock to speak at the annual meeting of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities. Cotton is seeking the Republican nomination for Pryor’s Senate seat, which is up for re-election next year.

Both men also discussed problems surrounding the implementation of the federal health care law Friday in separate speeches to educators.

Talking to reporters, Pryor said he believes Republicans in the Senate want to avoid a repeat of last month’s 16-day partial government shutdown. The shutdown was the result of a political standoff that occurred when some Republicans, mainly in the House, insisted that a condition of a budget deal must be the repeal or defunding of the Affordable Care Act, a demand at which Democrats balked.

The deal ultimately reached left the health care law in place. It funds the federal government through Jan. 15 and extends the government’s borrowing power through Feb. 7.

“My sense of the Senate (Republicans) is that they do not want to see the drama,” Pryor said. “They just want to move forward. Hopefully what we’ll see is efforts to fix the parts of the law that don’t work.”

But he added, “I don’t know what the House is going to do.”

Cotton told reporters, “I didn’t want the first shutdown. I voted for every (House) spending bill leading into the shutdown, during the shutdown and to conclude the shutdown.”

But Cotton also said, “I think it’s important that we both address our record high deficits and try to give the American people some relief from Obamacare.”

In his talk to the independent college and university leaders, Pryor said he knows of only one way to end the problems in Washington that led to the shutdown.

“The one thing that’ll fix the problems we have in Washington is the teachings of Jesus,” he said. “If we would take to heart, and mean it, the Golden Rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you — that would be revolutionary.”

Cotton and Pryor both criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the implementation of the health care law, but neither called for the resignation of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, as some in Congress have done.

Cotton, who was not yet in Congress when the law passed, told reporters the problem-plagued debut of the federal insurance marketplace website has been “a fiasco” that has cost hundreds of millions of dollars. He said there needs to be accountability for that, “but at root it’s not Kathleen Sebelius. It’s Barack Obama and Obamacare that’s the problem.”

Pryor, who voted for the law, told reporters, “I’ve been very disappointed with the administration on not having the website functioning properly on day one.”

Asked if Sebelius should resign, Pryor said she has accepted responsibility for the problems and said he wants to give the administration some time to fix those problems.

“I’m not there yet,” he said.

Pryor has advocated extending the initial open-enrollment period beyond the current deadline of March 31 because of the technical issues.

Addressing the college and university leaders, Pryor said he hopes to see more bipartisan work in Washington on issues such as student loans. He took a jab at Cotton for having voted against a measure to lower student loan rates.

“Not everybody in the Senate race was supportive of that, but I was supportive of that, and I think it’s important that we do support that. I think that we need to look for ways to make college more affordable,” Pryor said.

Cotton told the group that everyone supports greater access to education and acknowledged that he used a combination of private and government loans to get through college. But he also criticized increased federal spending on college aid programs.

“At a time when jobs are limited, Washington politicians make the cost of college seem relatively cheaper by expanding programs such as Pell Grants to a point of unsustainability or dictating interest rates on student loans, putting the financial risk ultimately on the backs of taxpayers,” he said.

The general election will be Nov. 4, 2014.