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.
Q: Because of the cost of it? What would have been the reason for opposing it?
A: I am an advocate of letting the states have as much authority as the states want. I'm not an advocate of putting more control and power in Washington, D.C. I think a lot of the federal programs need to be left to the states and the people. And we don't need to be expanding the power and role of the federal government in people's lives.
Q: So you think the states should have helped the elderly pay for prescriptions?
A: All I'm saying is I don't want to expand federal power.
Q: You keep saying “We passed our appropriations bills” as if the Senate's supposed to just accept them as is.
A: Or they could pass their own.
Q: The Democrats do control the Senate and the White House and they feel like some of their priorities should be included in whatever is passed.
A: And I would agree that in a divided government, you have to have consensus. But you don't get consensus when the White House is telling everybody that you either fund everything or we're not going to fund anything.
I mean, if they're not willing to even talk to us, how is it we can govern by consensus or come to any resolution?
Q: What did the shutdown accomplish?
A: I think probably people know that we fought the good fight, that we literally did everything we could on this issue. No. 2, the manner in which it ended demonstrated there are actually things the two parties agree on, which is that they're not going to risk the full faith and credit of the United States.
And No. 3, and probably most importantly, we have a real budget conference now coming out of it. The burden that that conference carries is going to be very heavy. But at least we're in real negotiations over trying to find a bipartisan compromise budget that will make sure we're not in this type of situation again. And we haven't had that in four years around here.
Q: How much damage do you think it did to the Oklahoma and national economies?
A: Well it certainly did some damage. The estimates vary from $12 billion to $24 billion. In a $17 trillion economy, that's not a great deal. But I think it shook consumer confidence a little bit. And that's what I would worry about longer term. If people aren't certain that the government will operate and pay its obligations, then they become more cautious in their spending patterns. So I think it has a drag effect that could linger for several months.
Q: Do you think Republicans will be punished in the next elections?
A: I think it's a risk if we repeat the pattern. I think it's a long way to the next election and frankly I think this is already being overtaken by the fallout over Obamacare.
The president, up through the shutdown, had a pretty bad off-year. He had a series of scandals related to the IRS, Benghazi. He had the Syrian debacle ... I think we have to be careful not to overplay our hand and to allow the spotlight to stay on the administration. If it does, I'm pretty comfortable we'll have a normal off-year election, which ought to favor the party out of power and that's us.
Q: How would you describe the philosophical divisions among congressional Republicans?
A: Well, there's unquestionable unity in terms of what people think in terms of policy. It's not as if any Republican is for Obamacare. They're all against it. It's not as if any of us want to raise taxes. We don't. So I'd say actually, in some ways, this is one of the more unified conferences I've ever seen.
I'd say there are sharp divisions over what the appropriate tactics are. And you know at the end of the day those are legitimate debates to have. But we need to be careful that they don't become debates that divide people that believe the same thing.
I think we let the cart get before the horse here. If we want to go after Obamacare and do more than make reforms and changes where we can, then we need to win the United States Senate and win the next presidential election. And I think some of the groups that precipitated the fight have now acknowledged that.
Q: How likely is another shutdown in January?
A: I think not likely. I would hope people learned a lesson that that didn't succeed.
Look, we know there's a debt ceiling (deadline) three weeks after the potential shutdown scenario. We know that neither side is going to breach that. So why in the world would you go through another period of a three-week shutdown?
I think the bigger danger is simply stumbling into a long-term continuing resolution at the sequester levels. And while I would do that before I would raise taxes or give in to some of the Democratic demands, it would be far better if we shifted the savings the sequester has achieved over to the non-discretionary side of the budget — looked at some of these entitlement reforms that both the president and the (House Republican) budget have in common and use the money we save there to not get rid of all the sequester cuts, but get rid of some of them.
Q: If there is no budget agreement, the military will get hit with another big budget cut. How much damage would that do?
A: It would do considerable damage to the military and we should recognize that. I have no doubt in the negotiations we'll offer multiple ways to get out of that. But if the Democratic answer is, “No you have to raise taxes,” that's not going to happen. The votes aren't here to do it. The president got a tax increase in January in the fiscal cliff deal. There were no spending cuts that accompanied that.
I just think we ought to probably have a modest goal here. We're about $90 billion apart in terms of what we want to appropriate and what the Senate wants to appropriate. We can find some number in the middle but that needs to be paid for with some pretty modest entitlement savings so we keep the deficits moving down.
Q: So when you talk about modest steps, you don't expect some grand bargain (for major, long-term deficit reduction) to come out of this?
A: I would like to see it, but I'm not raising expectations. There have been two or three efforts at this, and none of them have worked out. Although I will say that each time we've made an effort, we've actually lowered the deficit. And I think that gets lost in all this.
The (annual) deficit when the Republican majority came into office was $1.4 trillion. Now it's about $700 billion. That's extraordinary progress in the right direction and I think we can continue to make progress. But we had a Congressional Budget Office report out about a month ago that says you're never going to deal with this problem until you confront entitlements.
And I don't know any other way to do it. That's where most of the spending is and that's where the spending continues to grow relentlessly. We've shown that we can control spending on the discretionary side of the budget. We've got to find out whether or not the president is serious about leading in this area. So far, he really hasn't been.
Q: So you don't expect him to go as far as raising the retirement age (for Social Security) or the eligibility age for Medicare?
A: Well he's been on both sides of that ... It's kind of hard to know what his real position is just from reading his budget. But we could make some real progress just by taking some of the things that are in his budget and the (House Republican) budget and save money.