Transcript: Rep. Tom Cole, R-OK on "fiscal cliff" negotiations

John Dickerson: Hello, and welcome to Face to Face--I'm John Dickerson. I'm here in Canon Rotunda with Tom Cole, Republican Congressman from Oklahoma just elected to his sixth term. Congressman Cole, welcome.

Tom Cole: Thank you, John.

John Dickerson: You just learned today that the Majority Leader told you that you might have to stay here or to cancel your Christmas plans. What was the reaction in the caucus to that?(

Tom Cole: Oh, you know, I think people--there was obviously a groan, right away--people know this is important, and they need to be here, and we need to have the capacity to act quickly. That's much easier to do if we keep people there, so you know I think members, that's part of the job, so they'll certainly do it.((

John Dickerson: What's your understanding of the state of play right now in the fiscal cliff negotiations?((

Tom Cole: Well, frankly, we think the Speaker's put a good offer on the table--he's certainly put revenue on the table, in that sense has made a step towards the President. We're told there hasn't been much response, that is, the President's not gotten serious about spending cuts, we've certainly seen nothing publicly to suggest that he has-- either entitlement reform or real spending restraints. Instead we're looking at a proposal from him where revenue increases, or tax increases are four-to-one over spending cuts, and then there's enough new spending in it to actually eliminate any cut at all. And you know, that's a laughable proposal. We need the President to get serious, and I think the Speaker has proven that he is.(

John Dickerson: The President has basically said about tax rates, they're going to go up, that's going to be the deal from his perspective.

Tom Cole: Well, you know, that's current law. I hate it that it is. I'm against taxes going up, period. But you have to recognize, it's not as if we just dig down and hold ground, taxes won't rise--they're going to rise unless we have the cooperation of the Democratic President, the Democratic Senate. And they're going rise on every American that pays income taxes, so I think it behooves us all to act since we agree that-- we would say no Americans should have a tax increase-- but certainly 98 percent shouldn't, and certainly people below $250,000 shouldn't. But I think the American people want us to do more than that, they want us to cut spending, they want us to deal with the root of the problem. If the President gets all the revenue he's asking for, we'll still have incredible deficits as far as the eye can see. He's got to advance on spending front, the Speaker's already advanced on the revenue front.

John Dickerson: You mentioned a couple of weeks ago you were in support of a plan that would give 98 percent, keep their rates where they are, maybe rates would go up on the very top. Some people have come over to that position, but--

Tom Cole: Well, some people have, and I still think, look, you take the areas you can agree on, get them off the table. This is a big area of agreement. To me this prevents the American people from having to worry about this thing over holidays, or ever, and it's actually a Republican victory. If you can lock in 80 percent of the Bush tax cuts and make them permanent for 98 percent of the American people, that's a huge win. That's something we couldn't achieve when President Bush was president. Having said that, it doesn't solve the problem, and I think members of Congress and particularly the Speaker are anxious: let's get at the problem. We're spending too much, we've got an unsustainable entitlement system, we've made proposals on those fronts, we did it in the Ryan budget. We've had no serious Democratic proposal to restrain spending, literally, in years. Three years, no Senate budget, no House budget the last time the Democrats were in the majority, the President's budget doesn't get a single Democratic vote, and the President's proposal doesn't address the spending issue.

John Dickerson: Can you imagine a situation in which Republicans vote, if the President gives them enough on spending, vote for something that includes a tax rate hike?

Tom Cole: You know, again, I would argue, if the rates are going up anyway, you don't really have to do that unless you're voting to keep them up as far as they would otherwise go up. And this gets you into a semantic game, but I think, at the end of the day, Republicans are prepared--sufficient numbers of Republicans--there would have to be Democratic votes too, probably, are prepared, if there's real spending cuts and real entitlement reform, but they're not going to vote for revenue increases with no cuts, and so far the President is literally offering zero net reductions in spending, and no entitlement reforms.

John Dickerson: Let's stick with that imaginary prospect, the President, say, does offer something on spending, it is an agreement that has some tax rate increases. Do you think John Boehner could get a majority of his majority?

Tom Cole: I think John Boehner can get a majority for any deal he tells you he can get a majority for. That is, I think he knows our conference very well, it supported him in really tough budget negotiations in April of 2011 on the debt ceiling. He's demonstrated, "I know what it takes to get Republican votes for things that Republicans don't necessarily want to do." So if he and the President come to an agreement, I'm comfortable that that agreement will be passed in a bipartisan fashion. But if the President is laboring under the delusion that somehow there'll be twenty or thirty or forty Republicans break away from the Speaker and they'll negotiate--that's just not going to happen. This is not Spielberg's Lincoln, okay? You're not going to pick these guys off one at a time, we have one negotiator. His name is John Boehner. If he comes back and tells us, "This is a deal, it's the best deal I can get, I think it's an acceptable deal, a good deal for the American people," the support will be there. 

John Dickerson: Do you think his caucus is behind him?

Tom Cole: Yeah, I actually think he's stronger now than he's been in his entire leadership. You know very, more than symbolic, his entire leadership team signed his proposal, the leaders of the major committees--look, John Boehner has just gotten us through a very tough election, retained Republican majority in the process, I think, you know, this is a moment where Republicans know that he needs their full support, and I think he's got it.

John Dickerson: What is the political downside for Republicans if something doesn't get done and we head over the cliff?

Tom Cole: Well, I think it's down for all America. To me, the biggest problem is, they're going to lose faith in the political system and the political process. By the way, that means we're going to lose faith in the President too. Because this is a President who promised he could bring us together, could do something--he hasn't done that. And these are two guys that are very likely to be together, the Speaker and the President, for four years. We're not likely to lose the majority in the mid-term, with a second-term president, the President will obviously be the President for the next four years, so I think it's important that this succeeds so they can build on it and do other things going forward. We're not going to solve all the fiscal problems or all the challenges the country faces in a single negotiation, but this is going to establish a framework and a template, and it's something I hope the President keeps in mind. He needs John Boehner. John Boehner is going to be the Speaker regardless. But for the President to be successful as President, he's going to have to find a way to work with the Speaker productively.

John Dickerson: Does John Boehner, does he have to be worried at all about any defections or even challenges to his Speakership?

Tom Cole: In my opinion, no. I mean he just got re-nominated unanimously. The person who placed his name in nomination was Eric Cantor, the Leader and the number two guy. Look, he's got an awful lot of support. People appreciate the job that he's done, even people who might disagree with him here or there, I mean that's not unusual. He has got a lot of tough decisions. But again, he got us back in the majority, he retained this majority in a very tough year. So people think, you know, the guy probably is someone we can trust in tough situations. He's never let us down, and again, he delivered Republican votes in tough situations before.

John Dickerson: It's just two men in a room at this point really, isn't it?

Tom Cole: It really is, I mean you know, people ask you, "What's going on?" There's really only two people in the universe to ask. And, what the chemistry is there, what the relationship is, you know, I don't know. But right now I do think we're at a critical point, and at least from the Speaker's standpoint, what he's told us is that the President has not moved an inch towards him since the election. Now that was a strategy that the Democrats pursued in 2009, 2010. They won some legislative victories, but they got a Republican Congress and a very difficult one to deal with from their standpoint. I think the President needs to work with the Speaker, I think that's what the Speaker wants to try and do.

John Dickerson: Since it is two men in a room, what're the conversations like with your colleagues? I mean, what's the chatter?

Tom Cole: [LAUGHS] Well, you know it's sort of like standing outside the room, and you know your kid's in there in a big debate and they won't let you in. I think people want to be helpful, and there's a lot of discussion right now, what are things we could do to support the Speaker and to make it abundantly clear to the President that he has our support and that he negotiates, not just for himself but for all of us. But beyond that, again there's other things that people would like to take up, if we're going to be here, that don't relate directly to the fiscal cliff, there's some discussions about those issues going on. There's no question this is a shadow over everything.

John Dickerson: Final question, what's your prediction? Does this get done before the first of January?

Tom Cole: Well, I'm an optimist, and so I think it does, and I'll also say this. Look, John Boehner got a really good budget deal, as good as we could get in 2011 in May. He got a debt ceiling deal. And we didn't shut down the government in the first, we didn't default in the second. I think he wants things to work, but again he's also very accurate in telling the White House, "These are the things that have to happen if it's going to pass literally both Houses." Right now the President is asking for things that, honestly, I don't think would get through a Democratic Senate. The level of revenue he's asking for? The Senate's never--that's twice what they've ever passed themselves. So you've got a lot of Democratic Senators that aren't anxious to put their fingerprints on tax increases of that size. So the President needs to get real and sit down with a very practical politician in John Boehner and hammer out an agreement that actually moves us away from the cliff, but more importantly moves us towards solving some of our more long-term fiscal problems. So far? I don't think he's risen to the challenge

John Dickerson: Alright, Congressman, Congressman Tom Cole with us in the rotunda in Cannon. I'm John Dickerson, join Bob Schieffer this Sunday on Face the Nation.