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Sen. Jeff Flake: Republicans Can Work With President On Trade

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to hear from a Republican in Congress now.

Jeff Flake, freshman senator from Arizona, welcome to the program.

SENATOR JEFF FLAKE: Hey, thanks for having me on.

SIEGEL: Mara Liasson just said that while your party controls Congress, other than wanting to pass Keystone, we don't know what Republicans actually want to do as opposed to what they want to undo - Obamacare, non-deportation of the so-called DREAMers, Dodd-Frank, financial breaks. What does the GOP want to do?

FLAKE: Well, there's one thing that the president mentioned that we can work with him on and should - and this will require mostly Republican votes - and that's trade promotion authority. The president is seeking it. My guess is at least 80 percent of the votes needed will come from Republicans. And we're happy to do it.

SIEGEL: This was the rare moment in the speech when Republicans rose to applause and most Democrats remained in their seats.

FLAKE: That's right.

SIEGEL: Last year the National Taxpayers Union, a conservative group, gave you its highest score for reducing or controlling federal spending taxes of debt and regulation. Is there any part of what President Obama calls his middle-class economics that you can imagine voting for that I don't think the NTU would approve of?

FLAKE: I'm not sure. I'm still of the school that a rising tide lifts all boats, and so the president's talk of increasing taxes just didn't sit too well. I think there are areas, certainly loopholes and whatnot, that we can get rid of that are going to change some people's taxes, and some on the high end, some in the middle. But in terms of just raising taxes on one class, I don't think that's going to go anywhere.

SIEGEL: Senator Flake, you're a border state Republican and I know you have a very strong interest in immigration. The starting point for immigration seems to be an approach from Congress that the president will veto, a policy by the president that the Congress would try to defund. Do you foresee in this Congress even the possibility of Republicans and the president somehow meeting halfway on immigration?

FLAKE: I do. As you know, I was involved in the effort. I was a part of the Gang of Eight to put a comprehensive bill together before. It was just never taken up by the House. And you're right. I think the first action will be the House bill to defund the president's action. It will get to the Senate. It will likely not have 60 votes to, you know, pass the first procedural hurdle.

SIEGEL: Would you vote for there, by the way?

FLAKE: Well, I haven't seen all the amendments in the House, but I would vote to consider and to bring it procedurally.

FLAKE: But my response has been - to the president's action on immigration - let's not stick a finger in his eye, let's put legislation on his desk. And in one sense, the president's made it more difficult by moving unilaterally. But in another sense, he's made it easier because he was only supportive of comprehensive reform. Now he's gone piecemeal. And the House and the Senate will likely respond in kind. You're likely to see a border bill and then an interior enforcement bill, then maybe a guest worker bill.

SIEGEL: But when you say you might see that sequence on bills on immigration, aren't we obviously talking about the next president of the United States dealing with the end of that sequence? You wouldn't have time to see if the border bill worked, by Republican standards.

FLAKE: Not necessarily. I mean the border bill, you could tie the metrics to maybe the ultimate granting of citizenship. And that's kind of what we did in the so-called Gang of Eight bill, but that doesn't stop you from moving ahead on some of the other issues - the guest worker plans and a mechanism to deal with those who are here illegally while you're securing the border. So I don't think anybody should believe that you can secure the border unless you address some of the other issues, as well. But I think we're likely to see a sequence of bills that will end up on the president's desk and he'll be in, I think, a difficult position not to sign them.

SIEGEL: This time next year, we in the news business will be covering the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary. It's not a great time for high-profile politicians to endorse big compromises.

FLAKE: No, it's not.

SIEGEL: Is there - well, what's a realistic window for getting some serious legislation done that requires some give? Do we have a year?

FLAKE: Yes, I'd put it at that. And the closer we get to December of this year, the more difficult it's going to be. And it's always tough, particularly for Republicans. I've encouraged Republicans if we can't have a rational approach on immigration to maybe skip Iowa because it's tough to take positions that really puts you at odds with the general electorate. It's tough to get rid of ethanol. Some cities do because primaries start in Iowa. So there are peculiarities to this system that we have that we have to take into account and need to move quickly.

SIEGEL: Senator Flake, thanks for talking with us once again.

FLAKE: Thanks for having me on.

SIEGEL: That's Jeff Flake, Republican senator from Arizona.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And tomorrow as you start your day with MORNING EDITION and another conservative perspective, Steve Inskeep talks to former presidential speechwriter David Frum. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.