Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake will discuss issues being debated on Capitol Hill, such as immigration reform and the Affordable Care Act.
Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Evidence of chemical weapons attacks in Syria could be leading to possible U.S. military intervention in the region. This as Congress continues to fight over immigration reform and is now dealing with threats of a government shutdown over the funding of Obamacare. Joining us now to discuss these and other issues is Arizona Senator Jeff Flake. Good to see you.
Jeff Flake: Good to be here.
Ted Simons: You've been named most beautiful on the hill and you've had a scorpion sting, quite the experience here lately.
Jeff Flake: All I can say is that scorpion sting, I've been looking for a rattlesnake ever since to bite me, I got so much sympathy.
Ted Simons: Let's start with very serious business here now, there seems to be evidence of chemical weapons attacks. I want to get to immigration reform and other issues in a second. This is kind of bubbling. Chemical weapons attacks in Syria. What is going on here?
Jeff Flake: Everybody that's going in, just the eyewitness accounts, what the doctors are saying, it seems clear that's what it was. The government will try to say it was the rebels somehow, but it seems clear that it wasn't. The nice thing, it seems that our international allies are coming forward, as well. Even Russia is saying, investigate this. If we do have to intervene it's as part of an international community that does so.
Ted Simons: What should be the response here?
Jeff Flake: You cannot allow that to go on. We've said that's a red line and that red line has been crossed. There has to be some kind of intervention. I just hope it's in coordination with our allies.
Ted Simons: I was going say, is this a game changer? And if it's not, what is?
Jeff Flake: Like I said, it's when you have hundreds of people killed this way, if it turns out that is the case and it looks to be so, it's tough to hold back.
Ted Simons: Do we need to wait? Does the U.S. especially need to wait for more conclusive evidence, or is that strong enough as it is?
Jeff Flake: I think we'll be doing due diligence. The international community will be, over the coming weeks. You always hope the government there simply says, we've gone too far and we can have a peaceful end to all of this. But you know, when there are chemical weapons being used, the international community needs to move in, I would think.
Ted Simons: I know Senator McCain thinks U.S. credibility is damaged by not taking more forceful action there and in Syria.
Ted Simons: Do you agree with that?
Jeff Flake: I think in Syria, when we say we're going to do something, this is the red line, and then do nothing when it's crossed, it does affect our credibility in Syria. In Egypt I don't think it's as clear-cut what type of response we should have, not nearly as clear-cut.
Ted Simons: Why is that?
Jeff Flake: It's a more difficult and complex situation there. Obviously we would like to see democracy flourish, if we had one group going about it to start with, at least, it didn't end up that way. Certainly we would have liked to have seen a change through the electoral process. That didn't happen, so we'll never know what would have happened there. But we're in a tough situation in Egypt. There are no easy answers.
Ted Simons: I was going to say, on the one side, is it wise to back the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group? Is it wise to back the Egyptian military, which basically pulled off a coup?
Jeff Flake: Regardless of the justification or aim, it's tough to do. Having said that, the Muslim Brotherhood obviously didn't rule the way they said they would. It would have been nice to just see them defeated at the ballot box, which they may have been next year. We'll never know because there was the intervention.
Ted Simons: Should the U.S. consider military aid, economic aid to Egypt? They depend quite a bit on U.S. aid.
Jeff Flake: I think there are certainly limits to our leverage. We've seen the limits to our leverage. Obviously you've got to take those things into consideration and, like I say, when the military is killing people in the streets, how can you justify giving the military aid? So I think there's certainly going to be a suspension of that aid and maybe conditions placed on future aid. But we have strategic interests there certainly, the Suez Canal, obviously a regional player. They have recognized Israel and they have a peace treaty there we need to consider. There are no easy answers, it's tough to see black and white.
Ted Simons: Last point on this, and let's get back to domestic issues. The concept of the U.S. as the world's police operation, that's been debated for generations. What are your thoughts, especially in this New World in which U.S. leverage for better or worse doesn't seem to be what it used to be?
Jeff Flake: I hate to give a political answer here, but there's only one to give, I think. You have to take it on a case-by-case basis, one policy is to cover the whole world of nonintervention or intervention just doesn't work, and you have to play it by region, given what your allies are doing and what strategic interests you have in or near that country. So there are a lot of things to take into account. You know, that's what diplomacy and statecraft and this is about. So there's no easy answer.
Ted Simons: Let's get to something else with no easy answer, immigration reform here, especially comprehensive immigration reform. The status now of the Senate immigration bill that you helped to craft, where are we with this?
Jeff Flake: It's obviously passed the Senate with a pretty good majority. My goal going into this was to represent Arizona. What Arizona needs, first and foremost, is border security. And I think that this bill certainly does that. I never would have dreamed we would have been able to get what we got for the border, in terms of manpower and infrastructure, technology, to get a secure border. Then the other issues, the second border if you will, is at the workplace. To have mandatory E-verify across the country to give employers finally the tools. Then other issues that certainly help with the border itself, it's a good bill and I hope that we can get it through.
Ted Simons: I was going to say it seems from a distance that this particular bill isn't going anywhere in the House, correct me if I'm wrong. Can any immigration reform bill go anywhere in the House?
Jeff Flake: Don't write it off yet, we still have the fall. There's significant pressure and I think pressure is still mounting to do something here. We have a de facto amnesty right now. That this bill represents an amnesty, I don't believe it does, but it's what we have and will continue to have. We have to recognize we have a divided government. Republicans control just the House of Representatives. Democrats, the Presidency and the Senate. You have to have a bipartisan bill and therefore there's some give and take there. Having said that, for Arizona, we've suffered the ill effects from a porous border for far too long. Education costs, criminal justice, health care costs, we've borne the brunt of it. Arizonans are justifiably upset and justifiably asking that border security come first. I believe it does in this bill.
Ted Simons: Is that message getting through to the House? Right now it sounds like, especially the phrase pathway to citizenship, and other operative words in the Senate bill, sounds like these things are nonstarters over there.
Jeff Flake: I think broadly, broadly, it can go. Path to citizenship, this is earned citizenship. It's a long process. I think that if you look at polls certainly that's supportive, as long as it's not given. As long as it's not an amnesty, it's people who are here have to go through background checks, learn English, pay back taxes, pay fines, pay fees, and have a long waiting period. That's what people are expecting and that's what we have in this legislation. I think it has a good chance.
Ted Simons: So the path to citizenship equals amnesty. You say?
Jeff Flake: It's wrong. Amnesty is an unconditional pardon for a breach of law. In 1986, if you could prove you've been here for five years, you've got a short-cut to a green card. Here we say, if you wish to adjust your status, here's the process you have to go through. In many cases it would be easier and faster to go back to their home country and apply from there. They have to go through background checks, pay fees and fines, probationary period of five years, and then reapply. Go through more background checks, pay more fees and fines. Wait another five years and go the process again. The fastest anybody could achieve citizenship, after being here illegally, is 13 years, that's an earned path to citizenship I think is proper. I've always felt and in previous legislation I've introduced I've had a path to citizenship. I think if somebody's here in an illegal status for decades, shouldn't they have the rights and responsibilities that come with citizenship? That's what makes America, America. It needs to be a tough, arduous path.
Ted Simons: The issue itself, it's so political in so many ways, and so much of it seems to be resting on the Republican side of the aisle. How much is this issue dividing the GOP?
Jeff Flake: Obviously there are issues that divide the Democratic party, as well. This issue doesn't cut specifically across party lines in the Senate. There were 68 votes for the Senate bill, that's a good number of Republicans and all of the Democrats. It's not just a party line issue. But it is a divisive issue, a tough issue to deal with, and I think as a representative, a senator, you have to recognize you're not going to satisfy everyone with every bill that you do. You do the best you can and work through the legislative process and that's what we've done here.
Ted Simons: I see the stories and comments and the whole nine yards here. Is it unusual for you, I'm guessing you're used to the folks on the left throwing the rocks and brickbats and stuff, but you're getting hammered from some folks on the right. Talk to us about that.
Jeff Flake: I think when there's a big piece of legislation that you have to negotiate with the other side on- which you do, this is divided government, whether we like it or not -- I'd like it if we had a Republican in the White House and in the Senate, but we don't. When you do the best you can with a big piece of legislation that's this important, you will have detractors on both sides and we certainly have that now.
Ted Simons: Critics say the Republican party is jeopardizing the latino votes in the House. What's your response?
Jeff Flake: This is good policy, and I think good policy begets good politics. In the end certainly the Hispanic demographic is one that both parties need to take into account. I can just say this is good policy and the right thing to do and I think good politics will follow.
Ted Simons: Last question on this. How much has Arizona's image been impacted by the entire immigration debate?
Jeff Flake: Well, this has kind of been ground zero, certainly with a 375-mile border, it's going to be. There's been a lot of action at the state level because of the federal government's inaction. Far be it from me or others to criticize the state legislature or others for trying to solve a problem the federal government just won't solve. What I'm trying to do as a federal official is do what we can to solve this process, or problem, because as much as the state has tried to do in good faith, there are limits to what the state can do because this is largely a federal issue. The border is federal, most of the labor law is federal. The federal government has to move, and that's what we're trying to do.
Ted Simons: And you're saying don't count the House out yet. Do you count it out yet as far as the Senate? Kind of a piecemeal approach?
Jeff Flake: We never thought the House would take up the Senate bill as it is. I've served in the House and I know the disdain it's held in, in the Senate. I think we will have a process where we can get to an ultimate bill the President can sign.
Ted Simons: Let's get to the budget. Sounds like the continuing resolution is in danger. Gives us description of what that is, and why won't it continue?
Jeff Flake: When you don't go through a regular budget process, before the end of the fiscal year you have to fund government through the next year with a continuing Resolution. That's what we've done for years and years in Washington now and it doesn't reflect well on us as an institution that we have to do that. But September 30th is the end of the fiscal year. If we haven't passed the appropriation bills- and we've only considered one in the Senate, which didn't go through- then you have to pass the so-called C.R. and that's what we'll have to do.
Ted Simons: There seems to be a threat and again, I don't know if it's a credible threat here. I need your explanation on this from again those on the right, Republicans saying if we don't find a way to defund the Affordable Care Act, no continuing resolution. Is that a valid threat?
Jeff Flake: I would love to defund Obamacare. But by trying to do it in the C.R. or continuing resolution, I would simply be pretending to defund Obamacare. Most of the Affordable Care Act is funded through what's called mandatory spending that's not subject to annual appropriation. So while I share the goal of some of my colleagues that want to use the C.R. as a mechanism to defund Obamacare, I'm afraid we'd be doing something that we know isn't defunding Obamacare, and pretending that we did. Part of the reason the public holds us in such low esteem is because we do things we say we aren't, in my view.
Ted Simons: Is using the debt ceiling as leverage another case where again, sounds like folks are saying we'll do anything we have to do, including the continuing resolution, even though much of the Affordable Care Act is involved with that, to shut the government down, to make sure our voice is heard. Does that make sense to you?
Jeff Flake: In my view, the Affordable Care Act is falling of its own weight. The President is granting exceptions here and everywhere, delaying certain portions of it, my guess is other parts will be delayed, as well. One thing that's achievable is to delay the individual mandate, and we ought to delay it. Trying to defund it through the C.R. just doesn't work. The notion that the president is going sign free-standing legislation or even with the C.R. something that defunds Obamacare I think just isn't going to happen. So I want to do what's achievable. And what is achievable, I believe and hope we can delay it, delay the implementation. Because I share the concern that a lot of my colleagues have, once it's in, once these exchanges get up and running and people start to get their care through them, it's tough to turn back. That's not where we need to go.
Ted Simons: Do you think most Americans or Arizonans want to turn back, especially once Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act gets implemented and they see what's offered and what their options might be?
Jeff Flake: Yes. Keep in mind, I think the structure of Obamacare just isn't sustainable. You cannot have this structure work. To have healthy individuals of a young age just when the guarantee issue says that you can wait until you're sick to get a policy because you have to be covered, preexisting conditions have to be covered -- if that fee is lower than your premium, that's what you're going to take. Structure just isn't going to work. So I think we ought to delay the whole thing. I voted 37 times in the House to defund it. I'd love to defund it, you just can't do that through the C.R.
Ted Simons: The deficit would be reduced 138 billion in 10 years when fully implemented- the congressional budget office, supposedly nonpartisan- are they wrong?
Jeff Flake: Yes, they are. It depends on the assumptions. What the CBO comes out with is only as good as the assumptions you put in. They have to take Congress' word for it. They have to assume for example that we have taken care of the so-called Doc fix when we never do. We just punt it down a couple years later. Those assumptions that are in there that say we'll save money, assume that Congress will take action that we haven't had the stomach to take yet, it doesn't make sense.
Ted Simons: There's a new study that shows that most likely 8 million people will take advantage of the health care and the options therein. The government estimate I think originally was seven million new customers. Does that not show a need? And that the pool will be able to support this program?
Jeff Flake: There is a great need for affordable care. None of us who oppose Obamacare deny that. We have got to have a replacement. Some of us believe we have that. There is the need, nobody denies that. But this notion put forward with Obamacare that, for example, that most companies would be able to keep the policy that you have, and they wouldn't drop coverage, when it would be far cheaper for a lot of companies to drop the coverage and pay fine, you are going actually load more expense on the taxpayer than is projected, far, far more. I think we're already seeing that. The structure just isn't going to work.
Ted Simons: Are we not seeing in some states things are getting a little higher, but in other states, California I believe in particular, we're seeing general health care and insurance costs lowering because of the impending Obamacare?
Jeff Flake: I don't know how you can attribute anything. There were no cost controls in Obamacare. No tort reform.
Ted Simons: The result of what's going to happen, I think.
Jeff Flake: I'd be surprised if you can attribute anything that's happening to the positive effects of Obamacare because there's something nothing in there to control costs and no market mechanisms to allow the market to actually discipline costs.
Ted Simons: I know it's maybe not a fair question, but Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act here, nothing the way we were doing things before here. Those aren't your only two options.
Jeff Flake: Those are the only two options.
Ted Simons: I thought at least a try there.
Jeff Flake: Nobody, nobody is defending the current system as it is. Many of us have a lot of reform ideas that we'd like to continue with but not through Obamacare.
Ted Simons: The current system would be better left as it is as opposed to what is Obamacare?
Jeff Flake: Nobody is suggesting that we have the current system. The current system wouldn't be there. If we repeal, we'll replace with something better.
Ted Simons: NSA surveillance in the U.S., again, this is one of these stories that we're kind of hearing about as much as I think we're allowed to hear. What's going on here? Is the NSA doing something wrong? What are they charged with doing in the first place?
Jeff Flake: They have a patriot broad mandate and I think all of us in Congress were surprised to see the breadth and scope of some of the collection of date. Having said that, there are controls that are statutory that are there, and that the NSA does comply with. I'm not suggesting everything they have done has been illegal or aboveboard. We're still finding out some of that information. Where additional controls are needed we'll put those in. We want to make sure the administration has the tools they need, and that we balance civil liberties. Whether it's a Republican administration or Democrat administration they will take whatever tools you give them and then some. It's the job of the Congress to make sure you balance that with civil liberties. We've tried to strike that balance and done fairly well in certain circumstances. When technology changes you have to move in and revisit it.
Ted Simons: The Foreign Intelligence Agency Courts, the FISA courts, briefly, explain what they are. Secondly, aren't they designed to be a major control here?
Jeff Flake: Well, they are. They do weigh in and certainly they have prohibited certain surveillance that the administration would have liked to have done. These courts are appointed to do just this kind of check on surveillance. So when government wants to surveil or wants to do certain investigations they have to go through this court and individuals and explain what they are doing. FISA, we get reports in Congress, on what's being done and being asked. We go in periodically and check. When we did the Patriot Act years ago there were parts of it I was uncomfortable with. I had several amendments and changes. We sunsetted the controversial provisions and came back and changed some of those. I had several amendments of mine adopted, as well. You have to continually go in and try to balance civil liberties concerns and the privacy issue with the needs of the government to make sure they were safe.
Ted Simons: You talked about defunding the Affordable Care Act in the House and the Senate, and how there's a little bit of acrimony there, not much but just a little. You've got your feet wet and the desk shaped up and everything, what do you see?
Jeff Flake: The founders were wise to set up different institutions. In the House if you have 219 as opposed to 218, you can control everything. You control the rules committee, which amendments are offered, how many time for debate, everything. In the Senate it's different, it really has to come by unanimous consent or by a super majority.
Jeff Flake: Even though I was a local underclassman, you have significant leverage in the Senate you don't in the House. I think it's a good balance and there have been efforts to change the structure of the Senate and rules to get writ of the filibuster, for example. I think that would be a travesty.
Ted Simons: Good to see you again, thank you so much for joining us.
Jeff Flake: Great to be here.
Ted Simons: And that is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us, you have a great evening.
In this segment:
Jeff Flake:Republican Senator, Arizona;