Despite label as do-nothing Congress, Boehner boasts of changing debate

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 3, 2011 

WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner, looking confident and even relaxed, sounded very much like someone ready to compromise on the biggest fiscal issues of the day.

"I do think there's room for revenues, but there clearly is a limit to revenues that may be available," the Ohio Republican said Thursday in an interview with a small group of reporters. He would not detail exactly what revenue-raising he was talking about, but he and other GOP leaders have been adamant that taxes should not go up. Some Republicans regard ending certain subsidies, or anticipating more economic growth, as ways to help boost revenue.

Boehner, 61, was looking back, and forward, one year after Republicans won control of the House of Representatives, boosting him into the speaker's chair. The GOP has a 242-192 House majority, their biggest margin in 62 years.

They were elected largely on pledges to dramatically cut spending, keep taxes low, and ease regulatory burdens.

While the 112th Congress has served only 10 months, it's succeeded on one level, Boehner said. "We've changed the debate here," he said. "We're not talking about spending more money."

Congress has approved hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts. But the government is divided politically — Barack Obama remains president and the Senate remains under Democratic control — and that's led to some sharp, highly publicized disagreements.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., maintained Thursday that Republicans "have not produced — they have not created jobs for the American people. And that is, I think, the measure that we want to compare our first 300 days."

The division of power has led to some of the ugliest fights Washington has seen in years, notably the brinkmanship over spending legislation in April and on raising the debt ceiling in August.

Congress' latest approval rating was 9 percent in an Oct. 19-24 CBS News poll. Eighty-four percent disapproved. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points, and 1,650 adults were polled.

Boehner blamed much of the low standing on the economy, conceding only that the battles "certainly added to America's frustration with the political system. I'm frankly not surprised at all."

He showed no frustration over the harsh battles that he's endured with the White House and, at times, within his own caucus, where conservative Republicans were often adamant they wanted more budget cutting than GOP leadership sought.

"I knew it was going to be hard," said the 21-year congressional veteran. "There really haven't been any surprises. I've been through this drama before."

Boehner's next task could be getting House support for the deficit supercommittee's spending-cuts recommendations. The panel has until Nov. 23 to reach an agreement. If it does, Congress must approve it by Dec. 23.

If it fails, $1 trillion in automatic cuts over nine years would be triggered, half from domestic spending and half from defense, starting in 2013. Some entitlement and low-income programs would be exempt.

Despite this year's turmoil, Boehner was optimistic.

"Members are in a different place than they used to be," he said. "They understand the gravity of the situation we face."

Since the August deal to raise the debt limit, the Standard & Poor's credit rating agency lowered the U.S. rating from AAA to AA-plus; financial markets remained cautious and the economy often grew at a sluggish pace.

The supercommittee must cut at least $1.2 trillion from federal deficits over the next decade.

So far, the Republicans have been adamant — no tax increases. Democrats want to impose higher taxes on the wealthy, and have been just as persistent that they want no dramatic changes in entitlements, or programs such as Medicare.

"It is everybody's understanding that we have to yield on certain points when we see the urgency of doing so," said Pelosi. "It has to be big, bold and balanced, and that means it has to have a jobs component, a revenue component and a savings component."

Both parties must compromise, Boehner said. "Without real reform on the entitlement side," he said, "I don't know how you put any revenues on the table."

Asked to cite a specific entitlement change he would support, Boehner thought for a few seconds and then suggested changes to how benefit formulas are calculated. But he wouldn't get more specific on that topic, or much else.

He's a veteran lawmaker, and he knows that negotiations are delicate and ever-shifting.

Look at it this way, he said: "The same conversations have been going on all year."

ON THE WEB

The history of House party divisions

The House speaker's website

CBS congressional approval poll

The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction's website

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Debt-reduction 'supercommittee' starts work with a tone of comity

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Debt panel to meet in public, but few signs of progress yet

For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington

McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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