Two trains are headed for a collision on Capitol Hill Nov. 15, and U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) says the shock waves will reverberate across the country unless Democrats and Republicans find common ground.
"I wish I could tell you we were going to work out our differences, because we should," Levin said Monday afternoon at a private fund-raising luncheon at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel. "But the real possibility is this wreck is going to happen on the 15th due to the rigidity of the right."
Levin sees two major economic issues threatened by partisan bickering. First, lawmakers must approve appropriations bills for continued spending on many federally funded programs by Nov. 15; without those bills, the wheels of government could grind to a halt. Second, the Congress must approve the payment of $62 billion in interest on federal loans by that date; otherwise the nation's credit rating will plummet.
Levin says the Republicans are playing reckless politics with these issues, and could endanger the entire federal budget process, hurting innocent victims — the American people.
With the GOP running Congress, Levin also voices concerns for his own political future.
"The right wing is the biggest obstacle I face. I've got my work cut out for me," Levin said at the luncheon. He expressed a similar message earlier in the day at a fund-raising breakfast sponsored by Northern Californians for Good Government, a nonpartisan political action committee supporting pro-Israel politicians.
Levin said in an interview that his pro-Israel politics don't seem to weigh heavily in the upcoming election. In fact, Michigan voters appear to support Israel in the peace process.
For that reason, Mort Friedkin — a luncheon host and past president of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay — believes it imperative to support Levin. "He understands the importance of the America-Israel relationship. He has taken a lead in this regard and has been a friend to Israel," he said.
Politicians have a long history of spreading alarmist messages in hopes of winning campaign pledges. But when a third-term Detroit hometown favorite like Levin, 62, who has never faced a serious opponent, says he's in trouble, ears prick up.
This veteran Jewish senator with a strong pro-Israel record is not the only Democratic member of Congress to voice concerns about his political future. Meanwhile, in the wake of the GOP's sweep in November 1994 elections, Democratic Senators like Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) are leaving office.
Making re-election tougher is the current anti-incumbent mood . Levin said his experience since being elected in 1978 "is seen as a handicap. Lack of experience is something I just don't have."
Reflecting voter dissatisfaction with politics-as-usual, Michigan recently passed a two-term limit on members of Congress. Although the Supreme Court has since overturned the law, Michigan's vote "speaks to the political climate I'm working in.
"Right now I'm winning in the local polls. There's no name recognition on the other [Republican] side," Levin said as he approaches the state primaries. "But a lot of people will consider someone else."
Levin's main Republican challengers are Detroit radio talk-show host Ronna Romney and multimillionaire Jim Nicholson.
Meanwhile, Levin said he is most frightened by what he sees as an unyielding strength on the right. It is driving the potential train wreck he warned about.
"We're not just talking fiscal disagreements. This is ideological. There seems to be a `government is the enemy' approach. If this is the driving force behind Congress, we've got problems," he said.
He blames House Speaker Newt Gingrich for risking economic disaster over the nation's debt payments. "Gingrich doesn't care what happens unless he gets his way on the budget," he said. If Congress doesn't approve the debt extension, "We screw up America's credit rating. Interest rates will skyrocket."
Meanwhile, Levin is working hard to get out his Democratic message. That, he added, is no small task.
"Republicans have made their positions clear — less government, less taxes. Well, the Democratic answer is not more government, more taxes. It's more complicated than that," he said.
Levin has scaled down his party's message to three main ideals: create a government that serves its people, establish a united front where Americans are not pitted against each other, and institute political reform of campaign laws, lobbying and gift giving.