WINCHESTER, N.H. -- With a pie chart displayed on one screen and an upward-ticking national-debt calculator on another, U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte left no doubt about her biggest concern.
During a lunchtime appearance Wednesday at Winchester's VFW Post 3968, the first-term Republican spent a significant portion of her "town hall meeting" talking about the federal government's debt, its spending and the effect of both on the average citizen.
And she pointed a finger at both sides of the political aisle.
"I always say, because I really believe it -- the debt is a bipartisan problem," Ayotte said. "It took two parties to get us this far in debt, and it's going to take two parties to get us out of this debt, as well."
Prior to her election to the Senate in 2010, Ayotte had served as New Hampshire's first female attorney general. At the VFW, she was introduced by Richard Foote, a retired New Hampshire State Police captain and former Cheshire County sheriff.
Foote recalled an "easy" relationship with Ayotte when she was the state's top prosecutor.
"If you needed something from the attorney general's office, you called up the attorney general," Foote said. "She would pick up the phone and help."
Foote said he considered Wednesday's appearance by Ayotte to be the same sort of "grass-roots" interaction with New Hampshire residents. Staff said it was the seventh in a series of town-hall meetings conducted by the senator; she was headed to Claremont for another such meeting later in the day.
Ayotte is the lone Republican member of the state's congressional delegation, and she left no doubt about her fiscal conservatism. The government is more than $17 trillion in debt, she said, and that number could rise by another $10 trillion in the next decade.
"It's a really big challenge for our country and, I know, a deep concern to all of us especially as you think about, what are we handing not only to all of us but also to the next generation," she said.
In fiscal year 2013 alone, Ayotte said, the government's deficit was $680 billion. With that money, "we can pay for all the 2013 salaries for every professional baseball player for the next 222 years," she said. "Buy the latest iPhone for almost everyone on earth ... Buy a large Dunkin' Donuts coffee every day for every person in America for the next 3.5 years. So we'll all be very caffeinated."
Ayotte also pointed out that nearly half of the government's debt is foreign-owned. And even a slight increase in interest rates will boost the amount the nation owes significantly, she said.
"We've got to get our fiscal house in order," Ayotte said.
Among the fixes she supports is a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.
"Pretty much every state in the nation, including New Hampshire, has a legal requirement to balance its budget," she said. "The federal government doesn't have any requirements like that."
The senator serves on the Armed Services Committee and said she also has been working to reduce waste in the defense budget.
"We're spending money, for example, on a weapons program that's never going to come to fruition," she said.
"One of my favorites I dubbed the ‘missile to nowhere.' It's called the medium extended air-defense system. It's a missile system that we were developing with Europe that we never got a product out of," Ayotte said. "Thankfully, we're not (spending on the missile system) anymore, but we wasted a lot of money -- billions of dollars -- on that program."
Ayotte also is co-sponsoring a bill that would require the executive branch to develop -- and then submit to Congress -- plans to implement Government Accountability Office recommendations on eliminating waste.
"One problem with these reports is, they sit on the shelf too much," she said.
Ayotte addressed a wide variety of other topics during her stop in Winchester, including:
-- Medicare and Social Security.
Both entitlement programs are headed for insolvency, Ayotte argues, because there is not enough money being paid into the programs to support long-term benefit needs.
"One of the challenges we face is a demographic challenge with Medicare," Ayotte said. "So your average married couple contributes about $119,000 to Medicare and is taking, over a lifetime, about $357,000 in benefits. We're living longer, which is a great thing. But this makes it a challenge for the program."
She urged bipartisan work to change the programs, citing the work of President Ronald Reagan and then-House Speaker Tip O'Neill to "preserve the longevity" of Social Security in the 1980s.
"That's the type of work that needs to be done in Washington on these important programs," Ayotte said. "Some people may come to you and say, 'We should do nothing.' To do nothing is actually to say, 'I'm for a dramatic cut in benefits or bankruptcy.'"
-- Cuts in military benefits.
Ayotte said she voted against the recent, two-year federal budget agreement because it included "unfair cuts to military retirees' pensions."
"I introduced almost a dozen pieces of legislation to fix this -- in other words, to replace the cuts with other spending cuts that were more sensible and more fair," Ayotte said.
Her proposals did not pass. But Ayotte praised the fact that, last week, the Senate voted to rescind the military-benefit cuts.
"I'm glad that, on a bipartisan basis, people recognize that we were sending the wrong message to those who have served our country and have sacrificed the most," she said.
-- Affordable Care Act.
Ayotte said she is in favor of repealing the health-care overhaul known as ObamaCare. At the very least, she wants to "fix and change parts of it that are very onerous."
She displayed a picture of a stack of regulations "that have been flowing from the Department of Health and Human Services to implement this law."
"It's over 20,000 pages of new regulations," she said. "And in order to fund the law, there were $1 trillion in new taxes ... including one called a medical-device tax which hits companies like Smiths Medical over in Keene."
Ayotte noted that the Obama administration has been issuing orders to delay implementation of some parts of the Affordable Care Act.
"I want everyone to have an exemption from the law," she said.
-- Universal Service Fund.
Ayotte serves on the Commerce Committee and is concerned that that the Universal Service Fund -- supported by a phone-bill fee -- is not adequately supporting phone and broadband upgrades in the Granite State.
In 2012, New Hampshire residents paid $40 million into the fund. But the state received only $15 million for communication-improvement projects, she said.
"I think there's some things we could do here, but we're getting ripped off in Washington on this," Ayotte said. "And I'm going to work hard to fix this."
The senator also spoke about topics such as infrastructure investment; the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya; energy independence; job training; immigration; campaign-finance reform; attracting younger voters; and the minimum wage.
On the latter topic, Ayotte pointed to a new Congressional Budget Office report that said raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 hourly might cut employment by about 500,000 jobs.
"Some peoples' incomes would be raised," Ayotte said. "But what about the people who lose their jobs?"
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.