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Rep. Tom Cole Weighs In On Bipartisan Health Plan

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Republicans took an important step closer to overhauling the tax code last night by passing a budget resolution. Meanwhile, a bipartisan health care deal could already be done for. The measure was put together by Senators Patty Murray and Lamar Alexander. And it aims to prop up the individual insurance market and keep premiums down. It was introduced yesterday with 12 Republicans and 12 Democrats signing on. That means it looks like it could pass the Senate if it's brought up for a vote. But in the House, it faces a much more uncertain fate. Congressman Tom Cole is a Republican from Oklahoma. He joins me now on the line.

Congressman, good morning.

TOM COLE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: This bill is all about these subsidies that the federal government has been paying to insurance companies to offset the cost of expanded health care through the Affordable Care Act. President Trump cut off those payments. This bill would restore them immediately. Do you think that should happen?

COLE: Frankly, I think a lot depends on what else is with the bill. I think the president, by the way, did the right thing. I think constitutionally, these payments were always dubious. And we've had a court rule that they actually were unconstitutional. So it's going to take legislative action. And I think that depends whether or not there are significant reforms coupled with the payments.

MARTIN: In the meantime, though, this decision by the president to cut off the payments is having - will have real effects on consumers because if you don't restore them, then premiums are going to go up because insurance companies are going to inevitably pass those costs along to consumers. Does your party risk owning this politically when those consumers are going to have to pay higher premiums?

COLE: Well, I think you have to begin by obeying the Constitution. The Constitution is pretty clear the president cannot, on his own, make these payments. Money has to be appropriated by Congress. So, you know, again, I don't think you can get around that. And second, I think it depends on, again, what's there. Now, Senator Alexander, to his credit, and Senator Murray have put some important things in there in terms of state flexibility. I suspect if something got out of the Senate and got to the House, there would have to be additional modifications to get a majority in the House.

MARTIN: So what would that look like for you? What would you need to support it?

COLE: For me, look, there would be a range of things. As long as they significantly affect the cost, that would be an important consideration. One of the things for me that would be important would be something like tort reform coupled with this. But something major that actually gets at the cost. If you're going to spend this money, then you ought to be, in some way, reforming the system in a way that makes it less expensive and more effective.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I want to ask you about something else in the news this morning. Former President George W. Bush made remarks yesterday. He never named President Trump, but he was clearly referencing the Trump administration and some of the forces that brought him to the White House. Let's listen to a little bit here.

(SOUNBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W. BUSH: Discontent deepened and sharpened partisan conflicts. Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.

MARTIN: What did you make of those remarks from the former president?

COLE: Oh, there's nobody I admire more as a person than George W. Bush. I was proud to serve with him. And I think particularly in areas of race and in areas of inclusiveness, he always tried to make America a better place and bring us closer to our ideals. So, you know, I don't aim anything at President Trump, but I think it's hard to disagree with somebody that's talking about how do we unite instead of divide and how do we expand the American dream to every single element of our society.

So I'm proud anytime I hear any American but particularly President Bush talking in that way.

MARTIN: Do you think President Trump has been a uniter?

COLE: You know, in some areas, he has. I think he's done a better job, frankly, than he gets credit for. But we live in a divisive time, and I don't blame that on President Trump. I think that, frankly, predates him by quite a while. We've had polarization going on in this country. And I think President Bush pointed to the fact that we just need to remember we're all Americans. We have so much more in common than we have that divides us.

MARTIN: At the same time, though, it was clear that he was trying to point out what he sees as real problems in the country, not naming Donald Trump but clearly pointing at him. Do you think the GOP can be a party of both George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump?

COLE: Well, I think we are a party of both of them. And again, I don't have any doubt about the contributions that each has made. So again, there are going to be disagreements from time to time. But I always welcome President Bush when he decides to enter the fray, which is pretty infrequently these days. So it's good to hear his voice again.

MARTIN: Congressman Tom Cole, Republican from Oklahoma, thanks for your time this morning.

COLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.