WASHINGTON — Freshman Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Tulsa, was one of the main promoters of the strategy to “defund” the Affordable Care Act through a must-pass spending bill. In the summer, he made appearances with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and tea party supporters pushing the idea that the plan was really to keep the federal government running — just not Obamacare.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, spent August telling his constituents that the strategy was flawed and would lead to a damaging government shutdown. Ultimately, all House Republicans backed the strategy that Bridenstine pushed, the Democratic-controlled Senate and President Barack Obama refused to negotiate over Obamacare and the government shut down for the first 16 days of this month.
Cole was the only member of Oklahoma's all-Republican congressional delegation who voted to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling. He is now serving as one of the House negotiators on the budget.
Bridenstine, a former U.S. Navy pilot with an MBA from Cornell University, is in his first year in political office.
Cole, who has a master's degree from Yale University and a doctorate from the University of Oklahoma, has been involved in politics for more than 30 years and has been in the U.S. House since 2003.
The two congressmen answered questions last week about the shutdown and the upcoming budget negotiations.
Some of the answers have been edited for brevity.
Q: What do you think the shutdown accomplished?
A: Absolutely nothing. We have found another way to kick the can down the road is what we've done.
Q. Numerous public opinion polls have shown the shutdown was more damaging to Republicans than to Democrats. Do you worry that Republicans might be punished in next year's elections?
A: I don't think this will have an impact on next year's elections. A year in politics is a very, very long time. There will be a whole host of issues between now and then that will change the dynamics, including the abysmal rollout of Obamacare.
Q. There's been a lot of talk about divisions among Republicans in Congress. How would you describe the philosophical divisions?
A: I don't think there are any philosophical divisions really. It's more tactical division. In this last crisis, we all wanted to fund the government and we all wanted to protect our citizens from Obamacare. I think everyone saw that as the goal. I mean, the unity in the Republican conference on the House of Representatives side has been tremendous. On the Senate, I understand, it was a bit different.
Q: Then do you think — like Sen. (Ted) Cruz does — that if the Republicans on the Senate side had been as unified as on the House side the outcome might have been different?
A: I honestly don't want to comment on what's going on on the Senate side because I'm not in that body and I don't know who said what to who over there. ... I think ultimately the president could be forced to give us what we asked for not because he wants to, but because he has no choice. The one-year delay of the individual mandate is going to be a requirement if people can't sign up for Obamacare. And here you'll have the president unilaterally determining once again which parts of the law he's going to enforce or not enforce without any authority from Congress.
Q: You were one of (nine) House Republicans to vote against John Boehner for speaker in January. Are you still opposed to his leadership in the House?
A: Look, he's the leader of the Republican Party.
My concern is for (majority leader) Harry Reid in the Senate. Because we're going to take back the Senate and he's not going to have the ability to thwart our desire to fund the government. We passed (numerous spending bills). This is back in June we passed all of these, and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) never did anything with them.
Now looking back I see very clearly, he wanted to hold the entire discretionary budget hostage to Obamacare. He's the one that won't fund the government. And this idea that you either fund all of the government or you fund none of the government — this is not the tradition and history of our country. And in fact when you do that, you destroy the very basic fabric of a constitutional republic, where people have representation.
Q: If there is no agreement on the budget by Jan. 15, Congress will be faced with another shutdown. How likely do you think another shutdown is?
A: You're asking me to speculate. ... Here's what I believe is going to happen. I believe that we're going to come to a budget agreement. I believe that we're going to pass appropriations bills.
I'm being facetious by the way.
Q. I know, because you've got, like, six weeks.
A. But that's what the American people should expect of us. I'm under no illusion that Harry Reid is in any way going to enable us to get back to regular order. He doesn't want that. He wants the entire discretionary budget to be held hostage to the will of this president, which is not how our government is supposed to function.
Q: Is there any scenario under which you would vote to raise the debt ceiling?
A: I've always said I'd be willing to raise the debt ceiling if the process of doing so put us on the path to a balanced budget. I said that in my campaign. I'm not against raising the debt ceiling. I am against raising the debt ceiling if it doesn't solve the problem.
Q: Do you believe Congress will have to continue to operate in this three- to six-month fashion until after the next elections?
A: Again, it's over to Harry Reid. We've passed appropriations bills. I'd like to see us pass more. The challenge is — a (Continuing Resolution) used to be a temporary, stopgap measure until you got to the appropriations. And then some of those appropriations bills — instead of being a temporary stopgap — they wound up going all the way to the end of the year.
Q: Is the sequester (automatic budget cuts that went into effect in March) the problem?
A: It's because we have trillion dollar deficits. There's not agreement on how to get to a balanced budget. The Democrats want to raise taxes. Republicans want to cut spending. The key is to get back to a balanced budget. I personally believe that since we have more tax revenue than at any time in American history, we don't need to be raising taxes. And ultimately if you want to get to a balanced budget, you have to deal with entitlements.
Q: If you had been here 10 years ago would you have voted for the Medicare Part D program for prescription drugs?
A: I don't think I would have.