U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who faces re-election in 2014, offered a lengthy interview with radio station KASU 91.9 FM (Jonesboro) and discussed a number of hot button issues including disaster aid, immigration and gun control.
In the Wednesday interview, KASU’s Mark Smith asked Pryor if he agreed with the stance of U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who has said that disaster aid for tornado victims should be offset with other cuts to the federal budget.
“I agree with him in the abstract – that’s a great thing to do – but some of these things you just can’t plan for,” said Pryor. “I think we can do a better job of budgeting for disasters. That’s one thing I’m going to try to do in the ag [agriculture] appropriations bill is try to build in some disaster money in there. It should be in the budget. We should know that we’re going to need that money from time to time.”
Pryor added, “With all due respect to Sen. Coburn, I know it’s his home state, but if we have to get it done without doing an offset, I think we need to get it done. I think getting it done is more important than trying to figure out all the budget craziness right now.”
Pryor said he feels certain that a farm bill will get done this year. A Senate panel has referred a bill to the full chamber and Pryor said it should be voted on in the next 10 days.
He said that only about 20% of the ag bill deals with actual farming. The rest of the measure funds nutrition, food stamps, school lunch, and rural development needs. But Pryor thinks the House will pass a version of a bill this year, setting up a conference committee to hammer out final details.
“I think at some point later this year, Pres. Obama will sign this bill,” said Pryor.
With Washington now focused on immigration reform, Pryor said that he is studying a bill that was referred out of committee on Wednesday (May 22). Saying it is “long overdue,” Pryor reserved judgment on the final product until he has seen a copy of the bill that includes the nearly 150 amendments debated as part of the measure.
He also noted that there are two sides to the immigration equation.
“On the white collar side of the equation, where we allow the best and brightest from around the world to come to the U.S. to get educated, but then we don’t let them stay here and work. That’s a problem. Because what they do is they go to China and India and other places and they compete against us. That’s not smart policy,” said Pryor.
Describing the border immigration situation as “leaky,” Pryor said the blue collar component of immigration reform – low-wage workers and finding a path to citizenship or deportation – is a bigger challenge.
Pryor also addressed his recent controversial votes regarding background checks and gun control legislation.
The state’s senior senator has come under heavy criticism from groups who disagreed with his vote against the Manchin-Toomey bill, which expands background check measures.
Pryor voted for the Grassley amendment, which also failed on the Senate floor.
“I think on that vote, I’m right where Arkansas is,” said Pryor. “The vast majority of folks I’ve talked to in the last few weeks in Arkansas have come up and thanked me for my vote. The folks who are following this understand what I did and why.”
“Here’s the thing: I did vote to expand background checks. We had two background check bills on the floor that day,” Pryor added. “I think Grassley is where Arkansas is. Basically, what it does is eliminate the straw purchases, which are a problem, but it fixes our background check system we have on the books and it enforces the law we have on the books.”
Pryor said not all federal and state agencies are required to put background check data in the national system. He argued that Grassley fixed that as well as added definitions for mental health funding for the COPs program, which would add police officers in schools.
“You can read the Manchin-Toomey bill a dozen times and you know what? There’s not one thing in there that would have prevented Sandy Hook or Aurora or Tucson or Jonesboro. Nothing in that legislation that would have prevented those events,” said Pryor. “I think Grassley was a much better way to go.”
He said there is some talk that another effort for gun legislation may surface this year, but he contends Arkansas has a different gun culture than more urban parts of America.
“We’re very comfortable with gun ownership in our state,” he said. “I think guns are a different issue here than they are in New York City.”