House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has settled into his new job, but that doesn’t mean his new status and a series of key legislative wins have gone to his head. He recalls during a far-ranging interview yesterday afternoon in his Capitol office his recent visit to the Economic Club of New York. “I’m waiting to go on and I see the dais. It has three levels. That’s how it’s probably been done for 140 years. I say to myself, ‘Who am I, a small businessman, to go up there?’” It’s that lack of personal ego and a preference for putting the House agenda before his own political profile that distinguish his speakership from the Gingrich years, when chaos reigned and the Republicans’ agenda took a back seat to the speaker’s ego trips.
When I sat down with him he was in the midst of the media frenzy over the NY-26 special election and the Democrats’ assault on House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). He seemed genuinely unperturbed.
“It’s noise being created by some partisan journalists and Democrats,” he says. As for actual officeholders, he sees no panic in the ranks. (An aide on the way out reminds me that only five Republican senators voted against the Ryan budget, the four moderates and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who thinks the budget didn’t go far enough.) Choosing his words carefully, he says the Republican candidate in the New York special election, Jane Corwin, “allowed her opponent to define her.” That said, Boehner acknowledges that Medicare played a role in the election and helped rally Democrats. He’s not folding up his tent, however.
Referring to his news conference earlier that day, Boehner says, “I made clear this morning” that Republicans need to get the facts out. “We have a plan that preserves and protects Medicare for current seniors and the future. That’s the first thing. Second, there is one group of people who voted to cut Medicare: the Democrats. And third, they [the Democrats] have no plan.” He references the recent Medicare Trustees report, saying bluntly, ”The program is going bankrupt.”
Boehner’s certainly showing no sign of unease or worry: “These are the facts.” It’s now up to the House leadership to educate and train its members to defend the plan and to explain this to the public, he explains. He is clearly pleased with Ryan’s own video and a subsequent one by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) explaining the Ryan plan and explaining that Obama’s do-nothing approach will destroy Medicare. He wants to make clear that there will be more members speaking out.
As for the debt-ceiling limit, he says cautiously, “These Biden talks are making some progress.” But it is not determined whether House Republicans will present their own spending reduction package first or wait for the Biden discussions to conclude. While the process remains fluid, the goal is not. He tells me, “I have made it clear that this is the moment. Everybody in this town knows you cannot spend money you don’t have.” He says that when he took the job he was determined to follow the advice he received as a child: “ I was going to do the right things for the right reason.” With regard to the budget he is adamant: “No more kicking the can down the road.” He’s left little doubt in public speeches and interviews that House Republicans are determined to make hefty cuts to offset the increase in the debt ceiling, and to avoid raising taxes.
During the lame-duck session last December and for a brief time thereafter it seemed that the president might engage the Republicans and try to make progress on a series of important issues. Is Boehner surprised or disappointed that hasn’t been the case? He replies, “Well, the president clearly isn’t leading. He hasn’t given support to the free-trade agreements. He was not really leading in Libya — he kind of backed into it. He has not laid out a plan on the debt limit.” From Boehner’s standpoint, all he sees coming from the White House are “tax increases, more regulation and more spending.”
For example, on three pending free-trade deals he is plainly not pleased that the White House has taken a hands-off attitude. “The White House wants something, but doesn’t want to do any heavy lifting and doesn't want to upset people,” he says, suggesting the role of Big Labor in slowing down passage of the deals. “They expect us to do it all.” He shakes his head. “There are 250,000 job sitting there,” he tells me, which could be created here in the United States if the deals were completed.
If the White House has been dragging its heels on a variety of fronts, the Senate Democrats, he says bluntly, “all year have done nothing.” He tells me with obvious annoyance that Majority Leader Sen.Harry Reid (D-Nev.) “had the audacity to bring up” the president’s budget and the House budget, but that Senate Democrats “did not have enough gumption to put up their own budget.”
As for the flurry of recess appointments, Boehner is clear that each body is responsible for its own rules. Referring to the letter he received from Senate Republicans, he says, “I share their concerns.When I hear from 20 senators I’m going to pay attention.” He would say only that “I’m working with Senator Mitch McConnell.” (It was later announced that the House would not send an adjournment resolution to the Senate, which will remain in pro forma session.)
Defense spending has been the subject of much debate within conservative ranks. He explains, “Defense spending is going to be tight. There’s no doubt about it.” But he isn’t enamored of plucking a number out of the air and then figuring out where to cut. What he would like to see, he says, is for “the Defense Department and the White House to step back from the trees and look out into the future and see what we need” to maintain a strong defense.
He is blunt about the president’s conduct toward Israel. “It is part of what they’ve done for the last two and a half years — throw allies under the bus in an effort to reach out to people who hate us.”
In part two of the interview (which will run on Sunday), Boehner talks about the Tea Party movement, tax reform and the reaction of the public and his friends on the Hill to his new job.