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PAWTUCKET â€“ U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse answered questions ranging from federal spending and the national debt, to the need for infrastructure improvements to Obamacare and global climate change from more than 100 area residents who attended a community dinner at the Portuguese Social Club Thursday.
The second-term Democrat said â€śit is a challenging time to be in Washingtonâ€ť because the nation is only slowly coming out of the recession and the recovery is particularly slow in Rhode Island.
Although there is much â€śconflict and dissentâ€ť in Congress, Whitehouse said, â€śWhat I see is not necessarily conflict between Republicans and Democrats.â€ť Instead, he said, â€śthere is immense conflict among Republicans. They are almost at each otherâ€™s throats. We (Democrats) are the by-standers, but we feel the effects. Itâ€™s difficult to get legislation passed.â€ť
He suggested that one area where the two parties may be willing to work together is on spending more money on road projects.
â€śThere are so many roads, so many bridges, so much water work â€“ sewage and clean waterâ€ť he said that the bill to do all the work could approach $600 billion. Allocations in President Barack Obamaâ€™s stimulus plan several years ago amounted to $6 billion, just 1 percent of the problem, he said.
â€śWe need to build it sooner or later,â€ť Whitehouse said of the countryâ€™s infrastructure, â€śand doing it now would help unemployed construction workers and other people who are currently out of a job.â€ť
The senator said we are â€śclosing inâ€ť on the Oct. 1 date to start opening up health care exchanges, â€śand where they come up, the costs will go down.â€ť
He said that would help even up the cost for all buyers, instead of the current situation where according to Whitehouse, â€śbig businesses get good rates for their employees, small businesses, not so much and if you are an individual trying to buy insurance, you will pay through the nose.â€ť
Ken Noyes, a retired Pawtucket fire captain, encouraged Whitehouse to â€śstand strong,â€ť and â€śdo not give in to the debt ceiling terroristsâ€ť who are threatening to shut the government down.
â€śI promise you I will,â€ť he answered, â€śand I also promise that a lot of other people will stand up with me. This is not one of those issues where it is all the Republicans together who want to do this. There is a group of extremists making this threat, and a lot of Republicans disagree with them.â€ť
Ron Hubblebank of West Greenwich said he would like to see the federal government stop spending money because the budget is in deficit and the national debt is increasing.
Whitehouse did not agree.
â€śWeâ€™re still in a recession,â€ť he said. â€śWe are still recovering. If you look over in Europe, they tried to cut their way out of the recession and followed the so-called austerity principles. What happened is their economies actually got worse.â€ť
In European countries like Greece, Italy and Portugal, he claimed, they have unemployment at rates of 17 percent or 27 percent.
â€śWhen the economy goes bad, families spend less, businesses spend less, municipalities spend less, states spend less, and that contracts the economy even further. The federal governmentâ€™s job in that time, I think, is to try to counterbalance that by spending to offset it. Thatâ€™s a short-term thing and as soon as the economy takes hold, you have to be ready to dial that back. But you do have to get through the down period by continuing to spend. If we had followed the Republican prescription of all those cuts that they wanted, back in the middle of the recession, we would look a lot more like Portugal now. Weâ€™d be in real dire straits.â€ť
In response to a question about health care, Whitehouse said, â€śwe have to make it way more effective. Rhode Island, he said, â€śis doing some real cool thingsâ€ť establishing its health care exchanges. Going even further, the senator said universal health care â€śwould be a good idea.â€ť
When the senator said that the IRS would be in charge of collecting fines from people who donâ€™t purchase health care when Obamacare kicks in, Steve Grenier of Cumberland said, â€śthat doesnâ€™t make me feel all warm and fuzzy.â€ť
Grenier also asked whether illegal aliens would be allowed to take advantage of Obamacare, Whitehouse said he did not think that would happen right away, but once immigration reform is passed, â€śthat could happen.â€ť
Follow Jim Baron on Twitter @Jim_Baron