STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
All right. Let's talk more about that debate in Congress, which must pass a bill by Sept. 30 to keep the government running or see a partial shutdown. Republicans in the House passed a bill to fund the government but defund Obamacare; and now that bill is in the Senate, where Richard Durbin of Illinois is the Senate majority whip, the No. 2 Democrat in charge of counting votes. Senator, welcome back to the program.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Good to be with you, Steve.
INSKEEP: OK. Republicans - many of them, anyway - seem to be backing away from this measure. They don't seem to think it's practical. But do you have any doubt that you have the votes to restore Obamacare to this bill - restore funding, anyway, and then just pass it through the Senate?
DURBIN: I can tell you that Sen. Cruz, of Texas, is leading the opposition on the Senate floor. He is a well-educated man. I'm confident, in the course of his education, he learned to count to 60. He doesn't have the votes. He doesn't have a handful of votes for his position. And most Republicans, Senate Republicans that I speak to, think this is not only hurtful to the economy and job creation, it's hurtful to their party.
I hope that we can get beyond this quickly, put the government back in business as it should be after Oct. 1, and start to solve some of the problems we need to face.
INSKEEP: OK. Let's work this through. So you think you've got 60 votes, which ends a filibuster. You change the bill so it's the way you want it to be. You send it back to the House, where Republicans did pass a bill that defunds Obamacare. Normally, you'd negotiate and end up somewhere in the middle. Are you willing to negotiate with the House?
DURBIN: Well, I can tell you at this point, Speaker Boehner has been enthralled by the Tea Party faction in his caucus and has said that they're going to get to run their play here. Well, their play is going nowhere. Shutting down the government to defund Obamacare is a non-starter. Obamacare is going to go into effect Oct. 1, at least in terms of offering the insurance exchanges, and actually in effect Jan. 1.
What we need to do is to fund the government as well as extend the debt ceiling; and sit down in a constructive fashion and say, well, there are aspects of Obamacare that we should address and we can address, and do it on a bipartisan basis.
INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about that, because Republicans are now suggesting, well, maybe in this negotiation they could cripple part of Obamacare or delay part of it. Are you willing to talk about that in the context of this possible shutdown?
DURBIN: Well, the crippling and delaying part I am not looking forward to do in any respect. What I think we need to do is to look to the practical aspects of this and accept the obvious. I was on the Bowles Simpson Commission. We looked at the long-term debt and deficit of the United States. Sixty percent of that is associated with the cost of healthcare.
We ought to sit down and find a bipartisan basis to reduce the increase growth rate of health care costs across America. That's something we can do and we should do.
INSKEEP: OK. You mentioned debt. That leads to the next thing. The middle of October it looks like there needs to be a vote to raise the federal debt ceiling. I understand the Democratic argument here - just pass it because the bills have already run up and you have to pay them and borrowing is part of that. And I know that the debt ceiling has been raised many times, Senator Durbin, but there's also been a lot of negotiation over the years as part of raising the debt ceiling.
Are you going to refuse to negotiate with Republicans who want some concessions here?
DURBIN: I stand with the president on this. We cannot afford, at this moment in our economic history, to negotiate over the debt ceiling. For the United States of America to default on its debt, for the full faith and credit of the United States to be questioned across the world, is as damaging to this economic growth as anything Congress can do.
We need to accept the reality that extending the debt ceiling is a must. There is no way around it. And then we need to talk about serious efforts to reduce the deficit. You know, I stuck my neck out. I voted for Bowles Simpson. It was a bipartisan approach to it. It put everything on the table. That is the only honest way to approach this.
INSKEEP: OK. One other thing, Senator Durbin. Amid all of this drama, I do hear signs of progress on immigration reform. Our correspondent Carrie Johnson was on the air here the other day saying it's the best time we've seen in decades for sentencing reform, changing the way people are sentenced. Do you think if you get past these crises, you could actually legislate something?
DURBIN: You put your finger on it here. We passed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill, 14 Republicans and 54 Democrats in the Senate. It's been sitting for over two months now in the House of Representatives. They've put nothing on the floor. The same thing is true on the farm bill. Twice now we've passed a bipartisan farm bill. If they called either of those measures in the House today, they would pass on a bipartisan roll call.
And then we need to move on to other important issues. It's time to put this game playing and this doomsday strategy of shutting down the government, damaging the economy, killing jobs, behind us.
INSKEEP: Senator Durbin, thanks very much.
DURBIN: Thank you.
INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.