What stunned House SpeakerÂ John Boehner more than anything else during his prolonged closed-door budget negotiations withÂ Barack Obama was this revelation: “At one point several weeks ago,” Mr. Boehner says, “the president said to me, ‘We don’t have a spending problem.’ “
I am talking to Mr. Boehner in his office on the second floor of the Capitol, 72 hours after the historic House vote to take America off the so-called fiscal cliff by making permanent the Bush tax cuts on most Americans, but also to raise taxes on high earners. In the interim, Mr. Boehner had been elected to serve his second term as speaker of the House. Throughout our hour long conversation, as is his custom, he takes long drags on one cigarette after another.
Mr. Boehner looks battle weary from five weeks of grappling with the White House. He’s frustrated that the final deal failed to make progress toward his primary goal of “making a down payment on solving the debt crisis and setting a path to get real entitlement reform.” At one point he grimly says: “I need this job like I need a hole in the head.”
The president’s insistence that Washington doesn’t have a spending problem, Mr. Boehner says, is predicated on the belief that massive federal deficits stem from what Mr. Obama called “a health-care problem.” Mr. Boehner says that after he recovered from his astonishmentâ€””They blame all of the fiscal woes on our health-care system”â€”he replied: “Clearly we have a health-care problem, which is about to get worse with ObamaCare. But, Mr. President, we have a very serious spending problem.” He repeated this message so often, he says, that toward the end of the negotiations, the president became irritated and said: “I’m getting tired of hearing you say that.”
With the two sides so far from agreeing even on the nature of the country’s fiscal challenge, making progress on how to address it was difficult. Mr. Boehner became so agitated with the lack of progress that he cursed at Senate Majority LeaderÂ Harry Reid. “Those days after Christmas,” he explains, “I was in Ohio, and Harry’s on the Senate floor calling me a dictator and all kinds of nasty things. You know, I don’t lose my temper. I never do. But I was shocked at what Harry was saying about me. I came back to town. Saw Harry at the White House. And that was when that was said,” he says, referring to a pointed “go [blank] yourself” addressed to Mr. Reid.
Mr. Boehner confirms that at one critical juncture he asked Mr. Obama, after conceding on $800 billion in new taxes, “What am I getting?” and the president replied: “You don’t get anything for it. I’m taking that anyway.”