John Barrasso is the junior United States Senator from Wyoming and Chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee. After serving in the Wyoming State Senate, Barrasso was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 2007 following the death of Craig L. Thomas and won a special election in 2008. He was reelected in 2012. Before entering politics, Barrasso worked as an orthopedic surgeon and was once named “Wyoming Physician of the Year.” He spoke with The Politic just days after President Obama signed the budget deal that reopened the government and raised the debt ceiling.

The Politic: You voted for the budget deal, while your colleagues Mike Enzi and Cynthia Lummis voted against it. What do you make of the deal?

It was important to get the government open and to get people back to work. I opposed shutting down the government in the first place. I don’t think it’s a great deal. There’s not a lot to celebrate there. It’s important we actually do get verification of people’s income for the healthcare law, which was one component of it. But I voted for it because it was important to get the government open.

The Politic: How do you evaluate Republican leadership (Boehner and Cantor, McConnell and Cornyn) during the budget deal negotiations?

The Republicans are in charge of the House under John Boehner, and I hoped they would put together a package that would pass the House with a majority of Republican votes. They weren’t able to put a package like that together. With that situation, on the final day for the debt ceiling, as declared, at least, by the Secretary of the Treasury — it may not have truly been that date, but that is the date that he had set — it became incumbent upon the voices of the Senate to get something done, to get the government open, to get people back to work, and to live to fight another day on the significant spending and debt we have in this country.

The Politic: What, in particular, do you wish Speaker Boehner had done differently?

He worked closely with his members and there’s broad diversity in the strategy to address it.  Every Republican is committed to, and unified in our concerns about, spending, debt, borrowing, and the health care law. The differences and the disagreements are in what strategy to use and what timeline — how rapidly you can get major changes made legislatively. The differences were strategic.

The Politic: Where is the Republican Party heading? Did Ted Cruz take it off course?

Conservatism in America is very strong. People are very concerned about this level of debt. The president wanted to raise the debt ceiling by a million dollars a minute for the next 14 months.  People understand you can’t do that. Families can’t do it. A university can’t do it. States can’t do it. This country really can’t do it either. So, we will have another opportunity to address the debt.

The health care law is terribly unpopular. I’m a doctor. I did my surgical training here at Yale. I practiced surgery in Wyoming for almost 25 years. This health care law is unworkable; it’s unfair; it’s unaffordable for us as a country; and it’s very unpopular. I’m going to continue to work to try to repeal it, tear it apart, and if you think about how poorly this rollout of the exchanges has been — the president says, “Well, it’s just a glitch.” After a week, he has kind of changed his tune. Last Friday, I was with him in the White House, and he said, “Well, it’s just a problem with the cash registers.” With a cash register, you’ve already gone to the store, you’ve already shopped, you’ve gotten through the front door, you’ve found what you want to buy, and then you take it to the cash register.

The president doesn’t have a full understanding, or is not admitting, how deeply flawed and how terribly failed the computer system for the exchange is. He says, “We’ve had all these people that have come to shop there.” There are thousands of websites that get more traffic every day than the Obama healthcare exchange website. People see this and say, “If government can’t even get the website right, how are they going to get the healthcare part of it right?”

The Politic: How have your experiences as a doctor informed your opinions about Obamacare?

The year I graduated from medical school, about 16,000 people graduated from medical school. I graduated 35 years ago. This year, about 19,000 graduated — about 3,000 more coming out this year. Look at the population of the United States. It’s grown exponentially — not exponentially, actually, but huge growth. There are not enough people to take care of them… The average waiting time to get to see a family doctor in Massachusetts is over a month if you call today for an appointment.

So when the president says, “We’ll give everybody these Medicaid cards, and then they won’t have to go to the emergency rooms because they’ll have a doctor and we’re going to pay for all these preventative tests” — if you kind of do the math on how many doctors there are practicing medicine in the United States, even if they work 12 hours a day, there are not enough people to take care of the patients. Yet the healthcare law did nothing to train more physicians, did nothing to make sure there are enough nurse practitioners or physician assistants. Nurses are undersupplied. They’re figuring that by the end of this decade, there will be a shortage of a hundred thousand nurses.

My mom turned 90 recently. I got her a little booklet about what kind of cars people were driving when she was born, and who the president was, and the songs, and life expectancy. Life expectancy for a woman in the United States born 90 years ago was 56. Now it’s 81. When I was a kid in church, I didn’t know anyone that was in their 70s. They didn’t live that long. So they put Social Security and Medicare in at 65, never thinking that with advances in medicine you’re going to have this many people. Today, 10,000 baby boomers turn 65. Think about the Yale Coliseum. Every week, they [could] fill it with new people turning 65 and [getting] onto the Medicare rolls. There are not enough young folks to continue to pay in. It’s astonishing. From the time of the cavemen until 90 years ago, we added about 25 years to life expectancy. And in the last 90 years in my mom’s lifetime, we added another 25 years to life expectancy. There are just not enough people to take care of them all.

The Politic: How do you think we should get more doctors?

I had that discussion with Al Franken the other day. No matter what you do, it takes a while. I don’t know if you have friends here [at Yale] who are premed — they can tell you: from the day they start if they do the traditional route — four years of college, four years of medical school, orthopedic surgery is five more years — it’s 13 years. So this would have been a wonderful time, and I told the president this, to have this discussion about how much training somebody needs to be certified, to be able to provide the care. But they’ve done nothing about that. Actually what they’re trying to do is cut back funding through Medicare cuts, which all hospitals are concerned about who have training programs where they train residents to be surgeons, pediatricians, whatever.

The Politic: Liz Cheney, daughter of the former Vice President, is challenging your colleague Mike Enzi in the 2014 U.S. Senate Republican primary. Why did you endorse Enzi over Cheney?

Mike is my friend and mentor. I work closely with him. He is a strong conservative voice for the people of Wyoming. He does a great job representing the people of Wyoming. I have all the respect in the world for the Cheney family — for the vice president, for Lynne, for Liz, for the entire family. It’s just the wrong race at the wrong time for her.

 

Published by David Steiner

David Steiner, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is the Online Editor of The Politic. Contact him at david.steiner@yale.edu

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