Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) is known as a consummate dealmaker in Congress and a fiscal hawk. Lawmakers and staffers from both sides of the aisle routinely name Cole, a 14-year-veteran of the House and top member of the appropriations committee, as someone who respects the legislative process better than any sitting member of Congress. There are some hot-blooded Republicans in Washington who live to sow chaos and trash-talk their enemies. Cole is not one of them.
That’s why it would surprise nobody that the top Republican, who largely supports Trump’s legislative agenda, went after the president for threatening to shut down the government at the end of September if Congress sends him a funding bill that does not include money for a wall on the southern border—a rhetorical play that most politicians wouldn’t touch.
“I don’t think you should ever make a threat if you’re not prepared to carry it through. Look, this is not good politics. It doesn’t work. It’s never worked,” Cole told The Daily Beast in an interview this week. “And how do you justify shutting down the government that you control? I mean, [Republicans] have the presidency, the Senate, and the House, and you’re basically saying they’re dysfunctional.”
Speaking in front of supporters at a campaign rally in Arizona last week, Trump likely went off script when he made the shutdown threat, which was panned by lawmakers of both parties as irresponsible. (One Senate GOP leadership aide told The Daily Beast it’s “silly” to think a years-long project such as a border wall would be funded in its entirety in a single appropriations bill.)
Republicans expressed lukewarm condemnation of the shutdown threat at the time, but were generally unfazed by the president’s vague threat to throw the country into an economic tailspin.
“Congress has been very responsible rhetorically. We’ve certainly heard the speaker and the majority leader and leadership saying, ‘no government shutdown, no default,’” Cole said. “That means you’re going to have to bargain with the other side in good faith. I think we can do that.”
Cole’s remarks about the nature of the legislative process echo those of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who criticized Trump last month for having “excessive expectations” for Congress. Those comments set off a firestorm that saw the majority leader in the crosshairs of not only the president directly, but also his top allies on the airwaves. Trump went as far as to suggest that McConnell—in light of the Senate’s failure to pass an Obamacare repeal-and-replace measure—should be pushed out as majority leader if he doesn’t deliver on Trump’s other legislative items. Most lawmakers don’t view that as a winning strategy.
“You’re not going to bully United States senators, this isn’t the Apprentice,” Cole told the Associated Press. “You can’t look at them and say you’re fired, you’re going to need their vote and you oughtta remember that they’re going to be at the table in every major deal you need for the next three years. So I just don’t think that’s a productive way to proceed.”
But the partisan intra-party sniping has taken a backseat—for now.
Amid the destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey in eastern Texas, congressional Republicans have indicated that they’re focused on providing immediate federal aid to those affected. That means punting on key funding battles—including over the border wall—by passing a short-term continuing resolution that maintains current spending levels past the Sept. 30 deadline. Congress is expected to allocate disaster relief funds in phases, and lawmakers don’t want a government shutdown—or the mere threat of it—to interfere with the cleanup and recovery efforts.
“You’ve got a national crisis,” Cole told The Daily Beast, referring to Hurricane Harvey. “You can’t afford to shut [the government] down. It has to be all hands on deck in the affected areas, really for a considerable amount of time going forward. A government shutdown would wreak havoc in that. So I think I would back off that rhetoric.”
Despite his criticisms of Trump’s governing style, Cole votes with the president more than 97 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Cole doesn’t seem worried that his criticisms of the president’s style will backfire. (After all, Cole has won each of his last six elections with between 66 and 78 percent of the vote, and has successfully knocked off primary challengers.) Instead, Cole views them as an attempt to ease Trump onto a course-correction: to adopt more responsible rhetoric when dealing with Congress—something Republicans privately believe is a lost cause.
“I would suggest we approach it with a different attitude and not threaten one another, but actually make a commitment to the American people and get some big things done,” Cole said. “We know how to work together, and we’re going to make an example of that. To me, that’s a much more promising approach.”
Like other congressional Republicans, Cole was dismayed—but not surprised—when the Trump administration asked for a “clean,” no-strings-attached hike in the federal government’s borrowing limit. Conservatives have, in recent history, pushed for modest spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, and they believe this time around should be no different—especially with a Republican in the White House. But a government shutdown isn’t an acceptable alternative, according to Cole.
“There’s actually an opportunity here, if you want to look at it that way, for Democrats and the administration to work together. And Republican leadership will have to be on board,” Cole said. “But a lot of rank-and-file Republicans—myself included—are going to be uncomfortable [with a clean debt ceiling hike]. I think they can get there without my vote or without a lot of Republican votes. But I’m not in favor of defaulting on the full faith and credit of the United States.”
Raising the debt ceiling is among a plethora of issues Congress has on its plate when it returns to Washington after the Labor Day holiday. Lawmakers are expected to kick the proverbial can down the road to keep the government’s lights on, and live to fight another day on Trump’s legislative priorities—regardless of his threats.