The Sunday Take

The partisan rancor beneath Boehner's rhetoric

"We dug ourselves a big hole in '04, '05, '06, and we paid for it," says Republican John A. Boehner.
"We dug ourselves a big hole in '04, '05, '06, and we paid for it," says Republican John A. Boehner. (Bill Clark/roll Call Via Getty Images)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 4, 2010

"I've made it pretty clear," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner said, "that if we are a majority and I'm lucky enough to be speaker, I'm going to run the House differently than it's being run today and differently than it was run under Republicans in the past."

Boehner (R-Ohio) was sitting in his Capitol office, an ever-present pack of cigarettes near his fingertips. It was a few hours before he would end up on the receiving end of an attack from President Obama for having described the financial regulatory bill as "killing an ant with a nuclear weapon." That remark, to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, would bring him heaps of criticism all week.

Boehner's week was hardly helped by a comment from his former colleague Joe Scarborough, who volunteered on his MSNBC program, "Morning Joe," that the minority leader had a reputation of not being a particularly hard worker. A Politico story pointing to tensions between Boehner and some of the younger GOP House leaders rounded out a trifecta of unwelcome publicity.

There are certainly enough House districts in play to give Boehner's party the 39 additional seats needed to take back the majority it lost in 2006. Boehner said Republicans have "a great opportunity" to take control but concedes they still face "an uphill climb."

If the GOP were to gain the upper hand, and Boehner were elected as speaker, the question is what he and his party would do with that power. Boehner listed three priorities. First, he said, was a renewed commitment to fiscal discipline -- a test his party badly flunked the last time it was in the majority. Second, he said, was to engage in "an adult conversation with the American people" about the need to rein in entitlement spending. And third, he wants to increase bipartisan cooperation in the House.

He offered few concrete thoughts about the GOP agenda but promised that the party will make that clearer before November. "I'm not Barack Obama and I'm not Nancy Pelosi," he said. "I say what I mean and I mean what I say, and we're not going to put anything in a document that we don't have every intention of accomplishing."

He was explicit about health care. "We believe that the health-care bill needs to be repealed and replaced," he said. Beyond saying Republicans would scrub the budget for wasteful spending, a pledge regularly made and ignored by politicians of both parties, he offered no examples of what programs Republicans would actually cut.

Nor did he seem eager to tip his hand on the terms of entitlement reform. In his interview with the Tribune-Review, Boehner volunteered that the Social Security retirement age might need to be raised to 70 for younger workers but he would go no further.

Asked whether partial privatization of Social Security, which Republicans pushed unsuccessfully in 2005, would be part of a GOP agenda, he twice replied, "I have no idea."

Later, he called back to clarify, saying that what he meant to say was that, until Republicans complete their process of soliciting ideas from the American people, there will be no answer to that question. "We're not going to prejudge what's going to come out of this listening project."

That hardly sounded like a politician eager to provoke an adult conversion with the American people.

Boehner's third priority seemed to animate him most. "The institution up here is broken," he said. "I've seen speakers sacrifice the institution for their own partisan political gain time and time again."

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