Rep. Cole, Once Boehner's Rival, Backs House Plan

Steve Inskeep talks with Republican Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a one-time rival of House Speaker John Boehner who now backs Boehner's debt ceiling proposal.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly. Good morning.

The House of Representatives will not be voting today on a plan to raise the federal debt ceiling. Lawmakers are still rounding up support for House Speaker John Boehner's bill.

INSKEEP: It would, among other things, extend the debt limit for six months while also cutting spending, though according to the Congressional Budget Office, not as much as initially stated.

Let's talk about all this with Tom Cole. He is a Republican congressman from Oklahoma. He's on the line with us.

Congressman, welcome to the program.

Representative TOM COLE (Republican, Oklahoma): Hey, Steve. Thanks very much.

INSKEEP: Glad you could be with us. We should mention for people that you're a deputy whip, which means you are among the people charged with rounding up 218 votes for this measure. It sounds like it's hard work right now.

Rep. COLE: Well, we certainly got some challenges. But I think the great majority of the conference is actually behind whatever the speaker proposes. So I think we can get there.

INSKEEP: Although, you're going to need some Democratic votes to get it there?

Rep. COLE: Not necessarily. I prefer to do it with 218, but of course when we passed the Cut, Cap and Balance we did get Democratic votes and had a strong majority. And we've actually already, of course, raised the debt ceiling on one occasion. We just haven't found any Democrats in the Senate that want to help us.

INSKEEP: Well, you did get a handful of Democratic votes on that Cut, Cap and Balance, which is a measure that was passed a number of days ago and didn't get anywhere in the Senate.

You're saying that you're hoping to get 218 Republicans to vote for this. But it must be a little awkward and dismaying to some members of your conference that after saying the Democratic plan here was full of gimmicks the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says that the speaker's plan saves hundreds of billions of dollars less than initially advertised.

Rep. COLE: Oh, I think it just shows the challenges of putting something together that actually meets the rather arcane rules of congressional scoring.

The big difference between the Reid plan and the Boehner plan is, look, the Reid plan is based on a trillion dollars worth of savings because the Iraq and Afghan war presumably will end. That's true enough. But those aren't real savings. That's money nobody was ever planning to spend in the first place.

INSKEEP: OK. So that's the Reid plan. Now, regarding the Boehner plan, which the CBO says does not save as much money as advertised, are you going to have to adjust that in order to get more Republican votes for it by putting more money into it?

Rep. COLE: Oh, absolutely. The speaker made it very clear he wanted to save $1.2 trillion initially. And that would allow the president to have about a trillion dollars of additional spending authority. And then on top of that they get $1.8 trillion from a bipartisan congressional select committee that would be tasked to report back by November 23rd. And the Congress would have to vote by December 23rd.

So overall it's a $3 trillion plan, and I think that's where it'll end up.

INSKEEP: But we're talking about $1 trillion or $850 billion, according to the CBO, in this current plan. Are you going to have to raise that $850 billion to some other level in order to get enough Republican support?

Rep. COLE: Yeah, I think so. Well, I think that's what the speaker wants to do. He actually issued a statement last night pledging that we would meet the targets he laid out. So I'm sure we'll see in conference this morning the additional cuts that are necessary to reach that target.

INSKEEP: Some people are going to wonder if this is any way to do business to be adjusting bills by hundreds of billions of dollars less than a week before this debt ceiling deadline arrives.

Rep. COLE: Well, of course it's not a good way to do business, Steve. But I'd remind you, we passed a budget, the Ryan budget, the president's budget, that got rejected 97-0. The president's appointed Budget Deficit Commission refused to embrace its proposal.

We've yet to see in any public sense what his plan is to deal with this crisis. He's quick to threaten vetoes on things he doesn't like, but pretty slow about putting out a plan of his own. So I'd say he's made the process very difficult.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm glad you mentioned the Ryan budget, Congressman, because we should remind people - earlier in this program we heard from James Surowiecki, a business writer for The New Yorker, who points out that there is a regular budget process to cut spending if Congress actually wants to cut spending, if that's actually the goal.

Are some in your party, at least privately, beginning to acknowledge it was a mistake to try to cut spending by threatening the U.S. economy through this debt ceiling process?

Rep. COLE: No, I don't think so. Frankly, I think it's one of the good things that's come out of this. We'll never have a debt ceiling increase again without serious efforts to deal with the long term spending.

The problem isn't the ceiling. It's the debt. And we simply haven't done enough about it. We've too routinely raised this in the past.

I think once we get through this we'll look back and say we're glad that we were actually forced to make some real cuts before we plunged the United States more deeply into debt.

INSKEEP: Are you saying this is a good way to do business then?

Rep. COLE: I didn't say it was a good way to do business. This is a feature of this that's actually a good thing. And frankly, if the president had been serious about dealing with the debt instead of giving us a budget that his own party rejected, then we might've moved a lot further and a lot more quickly down the road.

We did that with the Ryan budget. We voted to increase the debt ceiling with the Cut, Cap and Balance. Frankly, it's the Democrats, in my view, the Senate and the president, who failed to put a plan on the table and failed to move anything through the legislative body they control.

INSKEEP: And, Congressman, just in about 10 seconds or so. Are you still among those - are you among those who would be wiling to refuse to raise the limit at all if you don't get a bill that you want?

Rep. COLE: No. I don't expect to get the bill that I want. I expect to get a good compromise bill. And I'm certainly prepared to support a reasonable compromise.

INSKEEP: Congressman, thanks for joining us this morning.

Rep. COLE: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Tom Cole is a Republican congressman from Oklahoma.

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