Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) recently recounted the comment that the president made to him in the midst of the fiscal cliff talks: “We don’t have a spending problem.” A source familiar with the conversation tells Right Turn that instead the president insisted we have a health-care problem.

The comment is absurd, given the huge increases in discretionary spending, the addition of more health-care spending in the form of Obamacare and the president’s unwillingness to address, for example, Medicare spending. A senior House adviser described the remark: “Obviously, he believes Obamacare is going to help drive down costs and help solve that problem. La la land.” Moreover, it does make fools of those who insisted during the election that Obama was serious about fiscal discipline and entitlement reform.

In a written statement today Boehner went back to the president’s comment, arguing, “At $16 trillion and climbing (more than $50,000 for every American), our national debt is a drag on our economy and a threat to our future. But when Republicans demanded serious spending cuts to begin addressing the debt, President Obama said: ‘We don’t have a spending problem.’ On the contrary – as Investor’s Business Daily points out – government spending is the ‘driving force’ behind our debt crisis. . .This is the year we need to work together to solve these problems with real spending cuts, meaningful reforms of the entitlement programs that are driving us deeper into debt, and a fairer, cleaner tax code.”

Clearly, the fiscal cliff negotiations have, it seems, convinced the speaker that the president is hopeless on spending and entitlement reform. A Boehner adviser told me, “The speaker is convinced the president isn’t willing to make the tough choices on spending to solve our long-term debt crisis. Obviously he has backpedaled since July 2011 because in the fiscal cliff negotiations he ruled out raising the Medicare eligibility age as well as any Medicaid savings.”

Not only has Obama’s stance obliterated Boehner’s willingness to negotiate one on one with him, but also it has turned the spotlight back to the Senate, where Republicans now insist that Democrats put their cards on the table, ending Majority Leader Harry Reid’s multi-year gambit of refusing to pass a budget. Byron York reports:

The budget passed by large Democratic majorities in the first months of the Obama administration had hugely elevated levels of spending in it. By not passing a new spending plan since, Reid has in effect made those levels the new budgetary baseline. Congress has kept the government going with continuing resolutions based on the last budget signed into law. . . .


While Reid has forbidden action. The situation is deeply frustrating for many Republicans. Sen. Jeff Sessions, ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, has conducted a virtual crusade on the issue, loudly and consistently and unsuccessfully demanding that Reid obey the law and pass a budget. Now, with a fight over the debt ceiling approaching, Sessions wants to try something new.
“I think it should be a firm principle that we should not raise the debt ceiling until we have a plan on how the new borrowed money will be spent,” Sessions told me Monday in a phone conversation from his home in Alabama. “If the government wants to borrow money so it can spend more, then the government ought to tell the Congress and the American people how they will spend it.”

The question still remains however as to how the Republicans will use their leverage to extract a real budget from the Senate and Obama’s agreement to do what he plainly does not want to do: slow the growth of government. In the series of events (e.g. the debt ceiling, the end of the two-month sequestration delay, the termination of the last Continuing Resolution) that ensue the GOP must balance competing concerns, namely the desire to optimize leverage against a president who refuses to take entitlement reform seriously and the hope to deflect the president’s attacks (with media assistance) that the GOP is refusing to “pay our bills” or “out to wreck the economy.” The Republicans will likely get thrashed no matter what they do, but it is essential that they make the case that the president’s avowed desire for a “balanced approach” is entirely insincere.