ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This week, President Obama is travelling around the country talking up ideas to strengthen the middle class, but those ideas are given very little chance of passage in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Well, to hear their side, we turn now to Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who's a member of the House Appropriations' Committee. Congressman Cole is also a deputy majority whip. Welcome back to the program.
REPRESENTATIVE TOM COLE: Robert, great to be with you.
SIEGEL: President Obama's talking about programs for job training, infrastructure spending. Do any of his ideas stand any chance with House Republicans or are they, frankly, dead on arrival?
COLE: Well, they're not dead on arrival, but we think there's actually more important things to do first. And I think actually the president probably would agree with this. Look, all government spending ends on September the 30th. That's the end of the fiscal year. Obviously, we have a debt ceiling that we'll bump up against sometime probably in early November. So putting the fiscal house in order, where we've made considerable progress, is, we think, job number one.
Number two, you know, again, we would think there's much too much in the way of regulatory activity in the executive branch that we disagree with the president on those initiatives. But again, we're going to cooperate, probably this week or next week, pass a student loan bill that the president wants passed. His ideas and our ideas are pretty close together, so that's actually got to be one where we will have found common ground.
SIEGEL: But in putting the fiscal house in order, should we assume, frankly, that across-the-board spending cuts, the so-called sequester, are likely to continue and deepen for lack of agreement on anything better?
COLE: Well, I think the savings need to continue. A lot will depend on what the president wants to do. We're willing to sit down and renegotiate where the cuts come from. We actually agree with the president that far too many of them are out of discretionary programs that actually impact the very things he's interested in, education and training for instance. And we'd rather see those savings coming out of the nondiscretionary side.
That would be out of things like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Food Stamp programs, those kind of areas where we think reforms can save us money and still help people in need. So, again, let's redistribute where it comes from, but I don't think you'll find Republicans interested in giving up the savings.
SIEGEL: Are we going to head into the next debt ceiling debate, you figure in November or so, with what Democrats call a manufactured crisis, that is Republicans, the majority, threatening things that you know you either can't do, which is default on federal bonds, or that nobody really wants to do, which is shut the whole government down?
COLE: Well, of course, we've already taken measures, at least in the House, to make sure we don't default on bonds and the payment on bonds is only about 6 percent or so of the entire federal deficit. So under any circumstance, we ought to be able to honor the commitments we've made to people we've borrowed money from. So I think this is one that both sides are willing to negotiate on.
We negotiated with the president in good faith last time, achieved a lot of savings, by the way. The president likes to tout that the deficit is only half of what it was a couple years ago and that coincides surprisingly - or not surprisingly really - with the arrival of a Republican Congress that's been focused on that.
So again, I think we need to reach a deal on this, but it needs to be a deal that changes the arc of the debt, so to speak, that it continues to bring down the deficit.
SIEGEL: I want to ask you about the speaker. The other day on "Face The Nation," Speaker Boehner described his role as that of a facilitator. He told Bob Schieffer, if I come out and say I'm for this or for that, all I'm doing is making my job harder. He's the second most powerful man in Washington. Does that meet your standards for leadership?
COLE: Well, look, I think the speaker is an exceptional speaker and I think he knows both the temper of the times and the nature of his caucus. And I would suggest the president's not too much different. If you recall, the president said basically the same thing about immigration. He's never put forward a plan. He's sort of hung back and let the Senate do its work.
He's trying to work, I think, more behind the scenes on that issue than one would expect. So I think both of them recognize the political realities of the time. And it's my hope, again, that they can find common ground. They've actually pulled off some pretty big deals together. We seem to forget the debt ceiling deal, the budget deal earlier in that same year.
The speaker has accommodated and worked with the president on a variety of areas.
SIEGEL: That's a very rosy view of what it's been like for the past couple of years. You're seeing the glass 5 percent full here, is what you're telling me.
COLE: Well, I think you got to be optimistic when you get up every morning, and hope you can get something done. But the really big challenge is the one in front of us; that is the end of the fiscal year and the debt ceiling. But it's also an opportunity. It's an opportunity to continue to lower the deficit. And it's an opportunity and a challenge for both parties to work together.
SIEGEL: I want to ask you about one thing that you are not uniquely but almost uniquely suited to comment on. Like many Oklahomans, you have Native American ancestry; you're a member of the Chickasaw Nation. The Congress added exemptions to the sequester for programs for lots of low-income Americans but they didn't include programs that aid American-Indians. Was that oversight that should be corrected?
COLE: It absolutely, it was an oversight. Actually the president also missed it. Remember, that was an agreed-upon deal. An administration missed it. The Congress missed it. I've actually sat down with Chairman Ryan and going forward - certainly for Indian health - that's where the biggest cuts have occurred.
SIEGEL: This is Chairman Paul Ryan, we're talking about.
COLE: That's correct. And he recognizes the oversight and I don't think we're going to have that situation in 2014. But it would be better, again, if we moved some of the savings that need to happen out of the discretionary budget - and that's what most Indian funding is - and toward the non-discretionary things where 60 percent of the federal budget is. So to have that area immune from cuts means the remaining area - whether its defense or Indian programs - are going to get savaged unfairly.
SIEGEL: Congressman Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, Deputy majority whip of the House Republican Caucus, thanks for talking with us.
COLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.