Ron Johnson, the Tea Party Senator Democrats Can Do Business With

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., says strategy “starts with recognizing reality, then setting achievable goals.”

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Before the Senate split town, the parties chose their conferees for this winter’s budget negotiations. Among the Republican picks: three of the 18 senators who voted against the deal that allows this process to start. The pick most identified with the Tea Party movement was Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, a businessman who never ran for any office before 2010. In a short interview before the vote, Johnson actually sounded critical of the base strategy that produced this fight and optimistic about how to get out of it.

“I’ve done a lot of strategic planning in my lifetime,” said Johnson. “It starts with recognizing reality, then setting achievable goals. I’ve been very up front about that. As much as I appreciate the effort of showing how bad Obamacare is for our nation, I never thought it was realistic to expect President Obama to repeal his signature legislation.”

What did that mean for the health care spending part of the negotiations? “We have to be flexible,” said Johnson. “Who knows—part of the deal could be solving the Medicare situation. Obamacare won’t be repealed, but how about we enforce it? Let’s make sure Congress doesn’t get special treatment before the law and let’s make sure we get income verification so we don’t have rampant fraud. Delaying the Medical Device Tax—I understand the thought behind that, good intentions, but as a business guy I know that’s not going to spur investment. We should just repeal it.”

In our talk—again, before the final solution changed some of the planning—Johnson was bullish on a House conservative concept that was adopted by Democrats as a way to force an end to shutdown. Oklahoma Rep. James Lankford had sponsored a bill that, in case of a shutdown, would keep the government running but cut spending by 1 percent after every 90 days of impasse.

“What we found is that the sequester, as bad as that is as policy, making Congress do the hard work of prioritizing spending has at least given us some discipline,” said Johnson. We’re on an unsustainable fiscal path here, and I’m looking at those moments that force action. I don’t like playing brinkmanship in these situations, but you’ve got to put some sort of mechanism in place to force action, otherwise the obligations are going to bankrupt this nation. So the Democrats moved the discharge petition on the Lankford bill. It would completely reopen the government and it would be very good fiscal discipline to take shutdown off the table forever. If you can’t fund appropriations bills anymore, we won’t shut anything down, but we’ll have 90 days until a 1 percent cut in spending. If the Democrats were bluffing, let’s call their bluff.”