WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim Inhofe returned to Washington last week, about a month after emergency heart surgery. Inhofe, R-Tulsa, had extreme blockage in five arteries. Inhofe, who turns 79 this month, has been in the U.S. Senate since 1994 and is running for re-election next year. He is the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and will help manage the 2014 defense bill when it comes up for consideration, possibly this week. He sat down for an interview in his Capitol Hill office to talk about his health, his health insurance and other topics. Some of his answers have been edited for reasons of brevity and clarity.
Q: At any point in the process, after you found out about all the blockage, were you scared you might not make it?
A: No, not at all. The same doctor who did (his wife's surgery) a year ago, Dr. Bob Garrett, we called and said, ‘Could you immediately do the surgery?' And he said, ‘Yeah.' So I got off the lane, got on the table and off we went. To answer your question though, no, I wasn't. In fact, it was a little relief. I had not felt any symptoms. If all that problem was there, I needed to get it corrected and I have a tendency to do things right away instead of waiting around.
Q: Was there anything you were told that you can't do now that you were doing before?
A: No. The joke around here is ... when I'm traveling in the state, I keep a real heavy schedule and I wear out my staff. And they're saying we can't keep up with the old Inhofe, let alone the new Inhofe. I can't think of anything. My heart was so restricted during that time, it's got to be a lot better now. And I can already tell that it is.
Q: Can you still fly upside down?
A: Hmm-hmm (yes). In fact I went in two of my rockets last Sunday. I didn't go upside down. You don't want to rush into things. I wanted to do that just so I could go ahead and stay current. The restriction I have for six months is that when I fly in my twin, I have to have a twin-engine-rated pilot in the plane with me. When I fly a single engine, you can always find a single-engine pilot.
Q: Did you have any second thoughts about running (for re-election) again after all this?
A: You know, this didn't intermingle with that in mind. (I've said) the reasons I'm running again and that hasn't changed. And Obama hasn't changed. So I'd say not. Frankly I enjoyed the time I couldn't be here.
Q. I heard you say on C-SPAN that you were watching (the 16-day partial government shutdown) from the perspective of someone who wasn't up here and it all seemed foolish to you.
A: It is a different perspective when you're not here and you're home and you're watching what's going on and how it's being reported. It is a little bit foolish. I can see why the American people — why our (poll) numbers are down so low.
Q: Yet you said the night they voted to extend funding and raise the debt ceiling for another few months that you would have voted against that.
A: Yes ... I made that announcement back in, I think, 2004 that I would not do it anymore.
Q Raise the debt ceiling?
Q: You got a little bit of attention not long after your surgery about some comments you made about Obamacare. Let me ask you this, you've been buying insurance through the federal employees health program and now you've got to go out on the exchange to buy insurance. Are you going to do that, or are you going to go on Medicare?
A: I haven't even thought about that. Now that this thing is behind me, I don't anticipate spending any money on health anyway. Or I'm not going to have any problems.
Do you remember the time, it was the all-night thing that (Texas Sen. Ted) Cruz did? And while I didn't stay up all night, I did participate ... So I told the story about (his wife, Kay's, heart surgery). And I was trying to get the point across that people who are the real proponents (of Obamacare) want a single-pay system, they want socialized medicine. So what I did was take her case and say with her case, at her age, in Canada, she would have had to wait six months, and the U.K. it would have been two months. And she couldn't have lived another two weeks. Not knowing that that same thing was going to happen to me. So it gets very down and personal when you think that a lot of people in those countries, they just die.
Q: Do you know that for a fact, that somebody in your condition in Canada wouldn't have been able to get surgery?
A: Yeah, oh yeah. They have tables that show — that's why the hospitals up north like (the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota) and some of those have such a high Canadian population because people come to America because they're denied procedures up there.
Q: Do you ever do your (health) insurance? Do you have any idea what you have now and do you ever mess with it, or does somebody just kind of do that for you?
A: There's a choice, and the mail handlers (insurance plan) is one of about five you choose from. Frankly, I chose that way back when I was in the House, and I can't remember why I did at that time. Our needs are so much different than others because we only have two of us.
Q: Is it that insurance that will cover all of your hospitalization and surgery?
A: It won't cover it all. I'm not sure what it will cover.
Q: So you don't get any Medicare money then?
A: (Inhofe turned to his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, and said, “You'll have to help me with this.” Jackson explained that Inhofe has Medicare Part A — hospitalization — coverage but that the senator's private insurer would be the first payer for the recent surgery and care.)
Q: So I guess it's fair to say this isn't something you've ever really had to dig into the details of much.
A: I really never have. I know it's important. I just have other things that are more important.
Q: Given the almost $500 billion that the Department of Defense is already having to cut and however much sequestration is going to add, do you expect Oklahoma is going to have far fewer military jobs over the next 10 years?
A: We have done remarkably well under the constraints we have had and I think we'll continue to do that.
It will be a loss of jobs. It will probably be some of our functions, maybe missions. (The munitions depot in) McAlester, for instance. If we're in the position where we're knocking down some of our brigades, there will be less training. If there's less training, there's less artillery to use, there's less ammo. The ammo depot will be reduced probably somewhat because they're gutting our military. The same thing would be true at Vance (Air Force Base near Enid) ... There will be fewer pilots training.
Q: Given the reductions that are obviously going to be there in the Defense Department budget, why not give them another round of base closures?
A: I'll tell you why. The one thing that is certain on base closures — in the first five years, you lose a lot of money. And we can't afford to lose the money at this time. I keep thinking this is still America and help is on its way. The 2014 elections should have a positive effect on our military and 2016.
Q Immediately after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's re-election victory (on Nov. 5), there was talk of him running for president. Could you support Chris Christie for president?
A: I'd have a hard time supporting Chris Christie.
Q: What about the talk that for the Republicans to win they're going to have to find someone who has crossover appeal like Christie does?
A: I can't think of a time in the history of my association with the Republican Party when that debate hasn't gone on ... I'm of the school that you've got to show a distinction between Democrats and Republicans. And in order to have the base energized, you've got to show that the party stands for something. Christie I still hold responsible for ... the re-election of Obama.
Q: Because of Sandy (hurricane relief)?
A: And the way he handled it, yeah.
Q: There's also talk that there's not going to be a viable candidate come out of this town, that it's going to have to come from one of the states because of the animosity in the country toward Washington.
A: That may be. I've thought that way before. However, we have some potentials now that we didn't have before. (Florida Sen.) Marco Rubio is one of them.
Q: Would you support either Rubio or Cruz?
A: I like them both but probably Rubio because of the length of time he's been in this thing and the experience he's had in Florida. I agree that we might need to find a viable candidate outside this town. But they're kind of considered to be outside this town.
Q: The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, you are opposed to it. Why?
A: Well, they have a lot of things, amendments that we wanted to get on, in terms of religious freedom. And then generally, to try to treat people differently, I just don't think it's necessary for government to do.
Q: I remember you telling the Tulsa World many years ago that you would never hire a gay person.
A: I never told them that. It wasn't that I'd never hire, I said I never had.
A: Then I found out later I had and didn't know it.
Q: Then let me ask the question now, would you?
A: My feeling is the same as the old Don't Ask, Don't Tell in the military. In 1998, I never thought that would have worked as well as it worked. But if you oppose changing that, then you're saying you're allowing someone to use his sexual orientation to advance his agenda ... Later on, I found out that Don't Ask, Don't Tell worked very well in the military.
Q: So that's not a concern for you in hiring people. You don't ask.
A: I don't think I've ever had the occasion of asking anyone. (Inhofe turned to his communications director). I hired you. Did I ask you?