House Speaker John Boehner is a poker-playing legislator who appreciates foreplay. And he’s been in the game so long that his definition of foreplay is a subcommittee markup.
The context is immigration, and Boehner is certain a deal will be struck in this Congress. This is among the many nuggets to emerge from a 46-minute interview Boehner gave to correspondents and TV anchors hours before the State of the Union address Tuesday.
- The sequester will happen March 1 unless Senate Democrats hurry up and pass an alternative backed by President Obama. If they don’t act, House Republicans won’t budge an inch to stop what Boehner called the “meat-ax” from falling.
- Tax reform is dead.
- Gun control is on life support.
- When it comes to entitlement reform, Obama is gutless.
- One other thing: Boehner doesn’t tweet. (Based on recent experience, he may be on to something.)
Seriously, Boehner’s certainty on immigration reform signals as loudly as anything—as loud as Sen. Marco Rubio’s prominence as the State of the Union responder and his transformation on the issue—that Republicans are dying to find compromise. But it will take time. When asked if the House GOP was ready to join Rubio in backing a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants here now, Boehner demurred.
“How about a little foreplay? Slow down. Let these things work their way along,” he said.
Boehner, though optimistic about immigration reform, is skeptical of a comprehensive bill. “Big, comprehensive bills carry lots of risk,” he said. “You can move an immigration bill—various pieces of it.” That’s one potential complication, a potentially large one. Boehner won’t commit to a big bill until he sees the language and can count noses on both sides of the House. In other words, more foreplay.
On the question of entitlement cuts and spine, Boehner was brutally honest about Obama.
“I think he’d like to deal with it, but to do the kind of heavy lifting that needs to be done, I don’t [think] he has the guts to go do it,” Boehner said. “He doesn’t have the courage to take on the liberal side of his own party. I’m sorry, but it’s clear as a bell to me.”
When reminded that Obama often says it doesn’t take courage for Republicans to seek cuts to health care for seniors (Medicare) or the poor (Medicaid), Boehner grew exasperated.
“We’re not talking about cuts, we’re not talking about hurting people. We’re talking about saving programs that will not exist if we don’t get serious. You tell me what’s worse: having some tweaks in a program, or having no program at all? Come on! He’s running up over $5 trillion of new debt in the last four years. How much more is he going to run us into the sewer?”
Boehner described in rich detail his talks with Obama during the August 2011 debt crisis and the December fiscal-cliff negotiations (incidentally, Boehner’s last substantive legislative conversation with Obama occurred just before Christmas). I asked Boehner why he gave in so early in the fiscal-cliff talks on GOP ideas to reform Medicare (premium support) and Medicaid (block grants to the states).
“There was a lot of discussion about them,” he said. “There was a lot of discussion from the president, too. [He said] no way, shape, or form. All right. If you won’t do premium support, what will you do? And that’s where eligibility and combining Part A and B, having a Medigap reform [came up]. There are a lot of other things that can be done on Medicaid—we had a lot of Medicaid reductions on the table in August of 2011. December of 2012—all off the table. Can’t do anything. I said ‘Nothing?’ Nothing. Trust me, I’ve had it all on the table. But the president hasn’t been willing to do it.”
Boehner did give Obama credit for embracing a change in the federal benefit inflation calculations. But Boehner demands a high courage quotient and wants more. The White House contends Obama can’t go any further.
“Changing the inflator across our government, commonly known as chained CPI, is a big step in the right direction that has significant savings in the first 10 years, and in the out years it has a huge savings,” Boehner said. “It’s time we put Medicare eligibility on a path to age 67 over the next 20-25 years.”
Those ideas may get kicked around again if there is a return to the bargaining table. It’s all a poker game with big stakes and a lot of silent eyeballing across an expanse of partisan mistrust.
But Boehner won’t pick up the phone first. He will try to sweat Democrats on the sequester, using the lever of across-the-board spending cuts to drive Obama back to the table on entitlement spending cuts.
House Republicans now believe negotiations with Obama have allowed Senate Democrats to sit on the sidelines and avoid tough budget votes. When Boehner purrs about the benefits of “regular order,” what he means is forcing Senate Democrats to walk the budget and appropriations gauntlet they’ve avoided during most of Obama’s presidency.
If they don’t, sequester happens, and the nation and its modestly recovering economy begin to be stalked by a potential government shutdown and default crisis. Boehner says he has no crystal ball and can’t predict any outcomes. And if you thought tax reform might be the crucible for a big deal, forget it.
“The president’s gotten his revenue,” Boehner said five times, to drive home the point that tax reform must be revenue-neutral. “We’d love to do tax reform. Why go through all that effort if it’s not going anywhere? Whenever I started a legislative effort, I always tried to look at the end of the line. Where do I want to end up? And then I could start a lot of different places, but I knew where I wanted to end up. And we know where we’d like to end up, and it’s probably not in line with where the president would want to end up.”
Sounds grim, Boehner conceded.
“We’ve got a divided country, we have a divided Congress, and we have a divided government. But I’m of the opinion that sometimes that actually is the time when you can come to an agreement on lots of issues. But you have to creep before you can walk.”
I guess we need to change the cliché. Can Washington creep and chew gum at the same time? Maybe if there’s enough foreplay.
This article appears in the Feb. 13, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as Boehner Unplugged.