STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Republicans have an opportunity they have not had in a decade. It's a chance for a Republican Congress to send legislation to a Republican president. The opportunity is also a challenge. For years, the party has passed legislation just for show, like repeatedly voting to repeal Obamacare. They didn't commit to any replacement but knew it didn't matter since President Obama would veto the repeal anyway. Now, big changes could be made for real. And South Dakota Senator John Thune, who is now chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, a party leadership post, is thinking of what to try first.
JOHN THUNE: I think addressing the anxiety that people feel, the sense that they've been left behind and probably starting with repealing and replacing Obamacare, that's an issue that impacts literally every American.
INSKEEP: How awkward is your situation with Obamacare because, of course, Republicans have pledged to repeal it, but you need to replace it with something to avoid a disaster for millions of people who are benefiting from it at the moment? How close are Republicans to agreeing on a replacement?
THUNE: Well, I mean, that's the hard part. You know, we had a vote in 2015 to repeal Obamacare. Now, we have a president that we think will sign it. And so the question then becomes, what is that transition to something new and hopefully something much better? The one thing we want to do is make sure that nobody is harmed.
INSKEEP: We spoke with a health care analyst who thought you might do something like this - pass a repeal and then give yourselves a couple of years to come up with a replacement. And the way he phrased it was that then creates a crisis because there's a deadline, it's expiring, and you'll have a desperate situation where you'll have to agree to something. Is that what you really mean to do?
THUNE: Well, I think that there will have to be a plan in the interim that takes care of people who are on the exchanges today. And we've always assumed that there would be a transition period where if, in fact, it is repealed, that it can be replaced with something better. And that - that may take a certain amount of time, but the sooner the better.
INSKEEP: Is it clear to you that many popular features of Obamacare are likely to remain in any replacement, just under a different name?
THUNE: Yes. You know, pre-existing conditions is something I think everybody agrees we need to have a solution for. In any scenario there, I think that you're looking at a completely new approach, but there are certain features that I suspect probably will hang around.
INSKEEP: I want to ask about one other thing. President-elect Trump has talked about an infrastructure bill, lots of spending on infrastructure. This seems to be something that Democrats, under Charles Schumer in the Senate, are ready to work with him on. Are Senate Republicans ready to pass an infrastructure bill quickly?
THUNE: There is interest among Republicans in infrastructure. And I think that, you know, real planes, trains, automobiles - all those things are important. Now, my guess is that if, in fact, something like that were to move forward, that it would probably be coupled with some tax reform initiatives because, obviously, it has to be paid for.
INSKEEP: I guess this is something that President Obama also called for, and a lot of Republicans in Congress said, no, no, no, no, that's too much government spending.
THUNE: Well, I think, frankly, a lot of us, when President Obama passed the stimulus, had hoped that it would include more infrastructure. But, you know, I think a lot of it has to do, one, how it's paid for, two, what is it paired with? Obviously, we want to do things that are in the best interests of growing the economy and creating better-paying jobs, and I think that tax reform and infrastructure both fit into that formula.
INSKEEP: I hear you saying that you are among the Republicans who would not like to increase the deficit very much, if you could avoid it.
THUNE: Correct. I mean, I think that anything we do, we want to make sure that we're doing it in a way that doesn't pile more and more debt on. The debt has doubled under President Obama. We're almost at $20 trillion now. That's a real crisis. If we do tax reform the right way, it will generate the kind of economic growth that does generate more government revenue.
INSKEEP: Of course, President-elect Trump has been talking about major tax cuts, which would tend to increase the deficit and, by some measures, by trillions of dollars over a number of years. Do you believe that many Republicans are ready to do that?
THUNE: I think Republicans - most Republicans are interested in tax reform that is pro-growth, that would create a stronger economy. Most, I would argue, would probably support a revenue-neutral, budget-neutral-type tax reform.
INSKEEP: We should - forgive me, you're using a different word here, I think. The president-elect is talking about tax cuts, reducing tax rates. You're talking about tax reform, which is trying to make sure the tax code is simpler and makes more sense, right?
THUNE: Correct. But I would also say that one of the keys to that, Steve, is that we have to have lowering rates to make America globally competitive once again. You know, one of the things that we do know is that the business tax rate in this country is the highest in the world, and it's driving companies and jobs overseas. And so we're using - maybe the terminology's a little bit different. When I talk about tax reform, I'm talking about, yes, rate reduction coupled with base-broadening and simplification and a lot of other things.
INSKEEP: And if you're saying that you want it to be revenue-neutral, that means, if somebody pays less in taxes, somebody else maybe would pay more, that it would not add to the deficit, which means that, at least at the opening bid here, you're several trillion dollars away from the incoming administration.
THUNE: I think that we're probably - we have some work to do to get to where we can find a consensus and a solution that would enjoy broad support. But the one thing I will point out is policy changes drive changes in behavior. What are the right policies that will generate the economic growth? And when the economy's growing and expanding at a faster rate, you're getting more government revenue, and you're creating better-paying jobs and higher wages.
INSKEEP: Senator John Thune of South Dakota was just reelected by a huge margin and is now chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. Thanks very much, Senator.
THUNE: Thanks, Steve.
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