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With Cliff Averted, Other Fiscal Challenges Remain


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. It's a new year, and on Wall Street and in official Washington, there is the ring of crisis averted. Long threatened across-the-board tax hikes and spending cuts did not materialize, but don't breathe too long a sigh of relief. We're about to look forward to the next few months.

SIEGEL: Joining us is Congressman Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, who cast his vote in favor of the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012. That is the get-us-off-the-fiscal-cliff compromise that was hammered out in the Senate. It was actually passed in the House in 2013. Representative Cole was very early among Republicans to acknowledge the inevitability of higher tax rates for the wealthy, and when many on Capitol Hill saw the sky falling yesterday in the House Republican caucus, he was rather calmly forecasting a late-night, up-or-down vote.

Welcome to the program.

REPRESENTATIVE TOM COLE: Hey, Robert. Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: We've come to rely so much on your powers of foresight. I'm going to ask you to try to look ahead two months now, this - when Washington is confronted with a couple of crises. The debt ceiling will need raising, and the sequestration, the across-the-board spending cuts have been...

COLE: That's - and I'll throw in one more for you: the continuing resolution which Congress is operating on now ends in three months. So this next 90 days is really a pretty critical period, and a lot depends - I expect it to be very contentious. A lot depends on what the president and my colleagues across the aisle want to do. The president's talked a great deal about having a balanced approach.

He got revenue last night on the income tax front. He's also gotten revenue by the expiration of the payroll tax holiday. So, a pretty significant sum of money, but it's nowhere near enough to cover our shortfall. So the next question is, okay, now that you've gotten revenue, what are the spending cuts, what are the entitlement reforms that you're willing to entertain?

SIEGEL: Well, would you foresee the same process in outline? Which is to say the Senate and the White House do a deal, and then the House gets a chance to vote up or down on it.

COLE: No, I think the House will probably be much more directly involved. It's the decisive arena in this, actually, more than the Senate is. And I think you'll also see probably a switch in the composition of votes. I would expect the deals going forward to be majority Republican and minority Democrat, as opposed to the other way around.

SIEGEL: To people on the outside, it looks as though Speaker Boehner was first unable to pass a Republican tax bill that he could bring to the table with President Obama. Next, his plan B failed, even after four Republican members were chastened for crossing the leadership. And then, last night, while he voted for the bill, as you did, the majority leader and the whip voted against him.

Given that record, why do you think he's so likely to get reelected speaker this week?

COLE: Well, first of all, there's no plausible alternative. Look, a lot of people that voted no last night wanted that bill to pass, but simply didn't have the courage or didn't feel the need to vote for it. And that's fair enough. We didn't need the votes. Obviously, we won substantially. I think the speaker showed real leadership last night and, honestly, put himself in a position to look the president in the eye and say, look, I worked with you to get this across. I provided the votes that you needed. I allowed the vote to occur. I took some considerable political risk in doing so. So now I expect you, Mr. President, to take some political risks of your own.

SIEGEL: There was some debate as to how bad going over the cliff with no bill would have been. I wonder, how do you regard, well, say, not raising the debt ceiling or the sequestration? Are those things so bad that they must be avoided, things you'd rather avoid or things that are better than the alternative of agreeing with the Democrats?

COLE: Well, I certainly would rather avoid them. Having said that, you avoid them not by simply voting for them, but by making sure that the reasons why people are concerned - and that's because our debt is mounting uncontrollably. This is four straight years of trillion-dollar-plus deficit, so we need to see the president lead on this issue. I think he has the ability to do that. I hope he does, and I'll work with him if does.

SIEGEL: But how bad is sequestration? If we just let that happen in two months, how terrible is that?

COLE: It's bad. It's not - I mean, it's bad mostly because it's mis-prioritized. I mean, across-the-board cuts, there's always areas that you want to hold harmless, areas that you maybe need more. So that's a better way to do it. But I would say sequestration, honestly, a lot of people would like to see across-the-board cuts. I was looking at a Rasmussen Poll earlier today that showed overwhelming support, in the 60s.

So that's actually from a Republican standpoint. There'd be a lot of concern over defense, and there should be. But politically, it's pretty easy ground to hold.

SIEGEL: OK. Congressman Cole, thank you. And again, when it comes to electing a speaker, you would say a vote against John Boehner is a...

COLE: Very stupid vote.


COLE: John Boehner will be reelected easily.

SIEGEL: Okay. Congressman Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, thanks a lot for talking with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.