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Boehner the budget hawk shifts his course

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"So be it."

That was House Speaker John Boehner's cold answer when asked Tuesday about job losses that would come from his new Republican majority's plans to cut tens of billions of dollars in government spending this year.

"Do you have any sort of estimate on how many jobs will be lost through this?" Pacifica Radio's Leigh Ann Caldwell inquired at a news conference just before the House began its debate on the cuts.

Boehner stood firm in his polished tassel loafers. "Since President Obama has taken office the federal government has added 200,000 new federal jobs, and if some of those jobs are lost in this, so be it," he said.

"Do you have any estimate of how many will?" Caldwell pressed. "And won't that negatively impact the economy?"

"I do not," Boehner replied, moving to the next questioner.

Well, Mr. Speaker, I do. I checked with budget expert Scott Lilly of the Center for American Progress, and, using the usual multipliers, he calculated that the cuts - a net of $59 billion in the last half of fiscal 2011 - would lead to the loss of 650,000 government jobs, and the indirect loss of 325,000 more jobs as fewer government workers travel and buy things. That's nearly 1 million jobs - possibly enough to tip the economy back into recession.

So be it?

Let's assume that Boehner is not as heartless as his words sound. Let's accept that he really believes, as he put it, that "if we reduce spending we'll create a better environment for job creation in America." A more balanced budget would indeed improve the jobs market - in the long run.

But in the short run, the cuts Boehner and his caucus propose would cause a shock to the economy that would slow, if not reverse, the recovery. And however pure Boehner's motives may be, the dirty truth is that a stall in the recovery would bring political benefits to the Republicans in the 2012 elections. It is in their political interests for unemployment to remain higher for the next two years. "So be it" is callous but rational.

Boehner could dismiss the forecasts of job losses as the work of liberal administration critics. But Boehner himself is well aware that the cuts will lead to more unemployment; that's why he's fighting hard to shield his Ohio constituents.

Among the savings proposed by the Obama administration (and before that, the Bush administration) is to end the wasteful effort to develop a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Pentagon is satisfied with the engine it has, made by Pratt & Whitney, and it doesn't want the second engine, made by General Electric and others. Eliminating the second engine would save $450 million this year and some $3 billion over 10 years.

But it just so happens that a GE plant that develops the second engine employs 7,000 people in Evendale, Ohio, near Boehner's district. Rather than take a so-be-it attitude toward jobs his constituents may hold, he's backing an earmark-like provision in the spending legislation to keep funding the unneeded GE engine.

"I believe that over the next 10 years this will save the government money," Boehner reasoned at his news conference.

This puts Boehner at odds with some members of his caucus, who, in a news conference half an hour after Boehner's, dismissed the speaker's wishful notion that the locally built engine would save money.

"That kind of speculation is not something the American people have patience for," said Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.). Freshman Rep. Robert Dold (R-Ill.) correctly judged that "Speaker Boehner has a constituency that he's representing as well as being the leader of the House."

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) reminded GOP leaders that cutting the wasteful engine is "the right thing to do, and I think the American people sent that message loud and clear."

Several of those at the later news conference were merely protecting jobs in their own districts. But Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.), whose constituents don't make either engine, used Boehner's logic against the speaker. "The number one thing that we can do for jobs in this country is get our spending under control," Griffin said.

Over many years, that may be true. But in the short term, deep cuts will mean catastrophic job losses. Whether the unemployed are in Evendale, Ohio, or elsewhere in America, "so be it" won't cut it.

E-mail the writer at danamilbank@ washpost.com or follow him on Twitter @milbank.

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