08/19/07 — Butterfield discusses war, health care, future

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Butterfield discusses war, health care, future

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on August 19, 2007 10:08 AM

When he agreed to meet with Goldsboro city officials, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-District 1, might not have been expecting Mayor Al King to react so passionately to his usual speech on the war in Iraq. On the other hand, though, Butterfield likely wasn't surprised.

So far, the war's been the hot topic at all his stops during the first two weeks of Congress' August recess.

"I'm hearing about a multitude of issues, but everyone is concerned about the war," he said. "It's the first thing people want to know about. The vast majority of people in my district want the war to end, but they want it to be done responsibly."

Count King among those advocating rapid closure.

"I get sick and tired of hearing politicians say they care about our troops. They don't care about our troops. They care about themselves," said the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and former commander of the 35th Service Squadron in Vietnam. "We have got to get them out of that hell hole. They are going to be messed up mentally and physically for the rest of their lives. We are not going to change it.

"We are just going to get our young people killed."

Unfortunately, Butterfield responded, changing course is easier said than done.

"Typically and constitutionally the legislative branch defers to the judgment of the commander-in-chief," he said. "Our only recourse is to cut off funding, and I don't think the public will is there to cut off funding."

But anything less -- setting benchmarks or withdrawal timetables -- is subject to Pres. George Bush's veto pen.

Even the much-anticipated September progress report from the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, is expected to be taken with a grain of salt by many in Congress.

"It will not be an unaudited report. It's going to be filtered by the White House. Ultimately, (the war) is the president's call. The only thing we can do is try to influence and convince the commander-in-chief that he is wrong, and right now, we aren't very successful," Butterfield said.

He is also predicting a battle with the president over children's health care when Congress goes back to Washington after Labor Day.

Nationwide, he said, there are about 12 million children in need of health insurance. Currently, Congress is providing funding through the State Children's Health Insurance Program to cover only half of them.

The goal, he continued, is to cover them all, including some from middle-income families. Bush, however, has threatened to veto such a bill, saying that the program should be used only to cover low-income children.

Republicans also are concerned about potential tax increases to cover the additional $50 billion bill, including a tobacco tax hike.

Locally, Butterfield illustrated the problem by describing the poverty of the First District, where 30 percent of children under the age of 5 live in poverty.

It is, he said, the 15th poorest congressional district in the nation.

However, House Democrats aren't at odds with Bush on every issue.

One that they have found common ground on is immigration reform and the need for not only border security, but also a guest worker program for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently living in America.

When a reform effort failed earlier this summer, many people thought it was the end of the debate until after the 2008 presidential election. But Butterfield, who serves as a chief deputy whip in the House, said that they are going to try one more time after Labor Day.

"We're going to make one last effort. We thought we were onto something last time. We have to have comprehensive reform on immigration," he said. "And we should want to keep it out of the presidential debates. It's a wedge issue."

It will be difficult, though, to find enough bipartisan support for a bill that is likely to look much like the one that failed in the Senate in July.

"We want President Bush to be stronger. We have the votes on the Democratic side," he said, promising at least 200.

But, he added, while it only takes 218 for a measure to pass, they are looking for more Republican support.

"We don't need just 18 more votes. We want a substantial number from the Republicans," he said, explaining that while they want 100, they have agreed to accept at least 70.

The problem, he explained, is that immigration reform has become one of those issues that is forcing congressmen and women to balance the views of their constituents with their own beliefs.

"Sometimes there is a tension between the two," Butterfield said. "The default position is to cast votes that reflect the mainstream views of my constituents -- unless it is a matter of conscience or some other extraordinary circumstance, then I have to vote my conscience. But most of the time they are one and the same."

But not every bill and issue that's come before Congress has devolved into a partisan battle.

The 2007 Farm Bill, which has a lot of potential impact for eastern North Carolina, passed the House with support from both sides of the aisle.

It's a multi-faceted bill that Butterfield said he was proud of with its safety net provisions and increased funding for nutrition programs, minority farmers and rural development. But, he admitted that it is also a bill that doesn't do much to help the family farmer.

"Small farms are not thriving," he acknowledged, blaming the ever-increasing cost of operations. "It's the same with the mom-and-pop stores and the downtown pharmacies. I don't like it, but it's a fact of life."

For those farmers, he continued, the key to the future is going to be taking advantage of the new bio-fuel economy.

"That has great potential for rural America," he said.

With an ever-improving ability to create ethanol from a variety of sources such as corn, soybeans, sugar cane, switchgrass and wood chips, small farmers should be able to find new ways to profit from their operations.

"That's a whole new economy that's emerging and our farmers need to learn it, understand it and meet the challenge," he said. "Right now it's going to be gradual, but hopefully by the year 2020, we will see a difference."

And really, that idea sums up why Butterfield is in Congress -- and is planning to run again in 2008.

It's why he is spending his summer vacation driving in an SUV across the 23 counties that make up his district.

"We're elected every two years and those two years come around real fast. The House is the people's house, and the Founding Fathers set it up for us to be responsive to the people," he said. "I think the reason for the recess is to get out to the people and hear what their concerns are, as well as present to them what's going on in Washington."

And while his work can be exhausting, he believes it's worth it.

"It's work. It's hard work," he said, describing days in office that begin before sunrise 6 a.m., often don't end until close to midnight, with committee meetings, caucus meetings, constituent meetings, floor votes and receptions and programs in between.

"It's a tough life. It ain't the luxury and the glitz and the glamour people think it is," he said. "I understand this district. I've been in this district my entire life. I understand the direction my district wants America to go, and I'm going to do all I can to help make that happen."

-- Staff Writer Anessa Myers contributed to this report.