Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is one of 11 freshmen entering the Senate. He is likely to be among the most watched, given his combat experience and expertise on national security, which, during a time of war and multiple international crises, may land him a spot on the Senate Intelligence, Foreign Relations or Armed Services committees.
I spoke to him by phone, beginning with the present foreign policy difficulties. Whatever embers of anti-interventionism were smoldering have pretty much been extinguished, he thinks. “Republicans are increasingly united because Americans are increasingly united,” he says.
On his campaign travels, he said, he “sure heard the desire to take the fight to the Islamic State.”
On Iran, he says, “I suspect and am somewhat fearful we will have another four-month extension,” which he argues will only allow Iran to move closer to a nuclear weapons capability. However, he is emphatic on what must happen if there is a deal and what the Senate’s role should be. He tells me: “Anything that happens should be sent to the Senate.” That is how the Constitution works, he argues. “Meanwhile, the Senate should tighten sanctions to put pressure on Iran, to put pressure on its economy.” He also wants the Senate to come up with a “framework” that outlines the contours of an acceptable agreement. “I do expect bipartisan support, ” he says, referencing the House sanctions bill that got 400 votes. “It is really just a strong way of sending a signal that Americans are united,” he explains. “I am very hopeful we can get a veto-proof majority.”
He is never as animated as when talking about restoring defense spending: “We need to restore money not only cut by the sequester but the $1 trillion [reduced before that].” He is a fiscal conservative but has a two-pronged approach for figuring out how to restore defense spending. “We should look at the baseline budgets in 2009,” he says. “You know, 2008 was not an austere time.” In the long run, he says we must look at entitlements and “we have to grow our economy to produce revenue,” but in the short term, he is certain “tens of billions” can be restored to the defense budget by combing through discretionary spending, which skyrocketed beginning with the stimulus package in the president’s first term.
Cotton was hopeful the president might not go forward on his own on immigration, but with the news that President Obama will unveil his unilateral action this week, Cotton argues, “The best case against it doesn’t come from me or other Republicans. It comes from the president. He said countless times he does not have the power.” He then makes an interesting distinction: “It is hard to make the president enforce the law. But the greater abuse would be issuing Social Security numbers, photo IDs and work permits. That takes money. We can stop money from being spent. That is what we did on Guantanamo.” He notes that in successive defense appropriations bills, Congress included a prohibition on use of funds to transfer detainees to the homeland.
“The American people voted with a very clear signal,” he says of the new members elected with a promise to stop unilateral executive action and secure the border. “Even in Oregon — not exactly a conservative bastion — they voted against issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.” He thinks the lame-duck session should not do much that’s “consequential” and defer instead to the new Congress. “I don’t think we should pass a government-wide, long-term spending bill. We should not cede authority for three-eighths of the rest of the Obama presidency,” he says about an omnibus bill that would run through the end of the fiscal year. His concern is not just on immigration. He makes a convincing case that Congress should retain leverage over spending on issues like coal regulation and Dodd-Frank regulations as well.
Cotton speaks calmly and with authority, so it is easy to forget that he is only 37 years old. He says he is humbled and honored that his state would select him as senator but has to yet to experience a “pinch-me moment.” He explains: “The campaign was long and my team and I worked very hard, so it is not like this just was handed to us.” His analogy is telling: “It is like the Army. Here I was fighting in Iraq, but this is what I was preparing for for 15 months.”
Indeed, an Army veteran who led troops in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan is not likely to be overwhelmed or intimidated by the Senate. Nor does his election appear to have gone to his head. “I have an entire life, family, friends in Dardanelle [his hometown],” he says. “When I got elected, it never occurred to me to give that up. I’ll be going back regularly, traveling, holding town halls.” It definitely seems he will have a much bigger impact on the Senate than the Senate will have on him. That would be to the benefit of the Senate, the country and Tom Cotton.