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Boehner: Partisan ‘Scar Tissue’ Can’t Be Ignored in Congress

January 5, 2011 at 3:28 PM EDT
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The 112th Congress convened Wednesday with Republicans regaining the House majority and Ohio's John Boehner taking over as House speaker. Ray Suarez reports on the day's ceremony and previews the congressional battles ahead, then Jim Lehrer talks to historian Michael Beschloss and congressional expert Norman Ornstein for more.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: The new Congress was seated today, with the House was under new management. Republicans returned to power after four years in the minority, and John Boehner was elected speaker.

Ray Suarez reports.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

RAY SUAREZ: The 61-year-old Boehner ascended the steps to power today, as he began his 21st year in Congress, representing part of suburban Cincinnati. He was handed the gavel by California Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who four years ago became the first woman to elected to be speaker.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-Calif.), House minority leader: I now pass this gavel and the sacred trust that goes with it to the new speaker.

God bless you, Speaker Boehner.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

RAY SUAREZ: Boehner addressed a House with 96 new members, nearly all of them Republicans. And he said the mission of the 112th Congress is clear.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), speaker of the House: We gather here today at a time of great challenges. Nearly one of 10 of our neighbors is out of work. Health care costs are still rising for American families. Our spending has caught up with us, and our debt soon will eclipse the entire size of our national economy. Hard work and tough decisions will be required of the 112th Congress.

No longer can we fall short. No longer can we kick the can down the road. The people voted to end business as usual, and today we begin to carry out their instructions.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

RAY SUAREZ: Boehner said Republicans intend to follow through on a pledge to run the House in a more transparent manner.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: In seeking this goal, we will part with some of the rituals that have come to characterize this institution under majorities, both Republican and Democrat alike. We will dispense with the conventional wisdom that bigger bills are always better, that fast legislating is good legislating, allowing amendments and open debate makes the legislative process less efficient than our forefathers had intended.

These misconceptions have been the basis for the rituals of a modern Washington.

RAY SUAREZ: At the same time, the new speaker acknowledged it’s not going to be easy to find a bipartisan way of doing business.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: There’s a great deal of scar tissue that’s been built up on both sides of the aisle. We can’t ignore that, nor should we.

My belief has always been that we can disagree without being disagreeable. That’s why it’s critical that this institution operate in a matter that permits a free exchange of ideas and resolves our honest differences through a fair debate and vote.

I am now ready to take the oath of office.

RAY SUAREZ: By tradition, the House’s longest-serving member, in this case, Michigan Democrat John Dingell, called the dean of the House, then proceeded to administer the oath of office to Boehner.

REP. JOHN DINGELL (D-Mich.): That you will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter, so help you God.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: I do.

REP. JOHN DINGELL: Congratulations, Mr. Speaker.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

RAY SUAREZ: And, with that, the new speaker administered the oath to the other 241 Republicans and 193 Democrats who make up the new House.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Congratulations.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

RAY SUAREZ: But partisanship was largely out of view on this opening day, as veterans on both sides offered hopeful assessments of Speaker Boehner.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN (D-Calif.): I think there’s reason to hope that he will understand, his role as a leader is not just to play to his base, but to try to bring his base along to compromises that will be in the public interest.

REP. DAVE CAMP (R-Mich.): The openness that he brings to this process will mean we can actually arrive at some consensus, and then begin to move forward and do the work on behalf of the American people we were sent here to do.

RAY SUAREZ: Emboldened by their new House majority, Republicans say they are not going to waste any time in keeping the promises they made during the campaign, like repealing the health care law passed last year.

But moves like that are seen as largely symbolic, since Democrats still control the Senate, and the leadership there says it will block any attempts to roll back President Obama’s initiatives.

U.S. VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: The clerk will call the names of the next group.

WOMAN: Mr. Paul of Kentucky. Mr. Portman of Ohio.

RAY SUAREZ: Today, though, the Senate, too, was preoccupied with ceremony: the swearing-in of new members and those who won reelection.

Republicans gained six seats, for a total of 47. Democrats will control 53, including five-termer Barbara Mikulski, now the longest- serving woman in Senate history.

SEN. BARBARA MIKULSKI (D-Md.): For me, again, it’s all about service. I’m fighting for a stronger economy and a safer America. For me, it’s not about the past; it’s about the future.

RAY SUAREZ: The Senate’s first order of business was beginning a debate over rules that govern debate.

Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Democrats want to rein in repeated filibusters.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-Nev.), majority leader: No one can deny that the filibuster has been used for purely political reasons, reasons far beyond those for which this protection was invented and intended.

MAN: The Republican leader is recognized.

RAY SUAREZ: In turn, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell insisted the public wants more debate, not less.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), minority leader: And the response they’re now getting from some on the other side, instead, is a proposal to change the Senate rules, so they can continue to do exactly what they want with fewer members than before.

RAY SUAREZ: That momentary clash foreshadowed bigger fights to come, from repeal of health care reform to spending cuts, as the 112th Congress gets down to work.

JIM LEHRER: And for more on the launch of the new Congress, here now are historian Michael Beschloss, and Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

Norm, what kind of opening day did Speaker Boehner have?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute: It was a terrific day for John Boehner, and a day that was very different than what we have seen with, say, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi first came in four years before, or when Newt Gingrich came in triumphant in 1995.

Those were victory dances, celebrations of historic change. This was low-key, and it was Speaker Boehner appealing to something higher. How long that lasts, however, beyond this first day is a different issue.

JIM LEHRER: How would you describe the expectations about him?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: I think, as Henry Waxman suggested in the tape piece, Boehner does have a history as a legislator.

He’s somebody who was a key figure, for example, in forging a compromise on No Child Left Behind, the education reform that was a top priority for George W. Bush when he first came in, in 2001. He worked with George Miller, a very liberal Democrat and a close ally of the speaker.

So, I think there are some hopes. But what Democrats and Republicans also know is that there’s a contentious body here, and that there’s contentiousness even within the Republican ranks.

For Speaker Boehner, he faces a majority, a robust majority, but more than a third of the members are new. And of those 87, about half have never served in any office before, and they didn’t come in to march in lockstep with the leadership of their own party, much less with anybody else.

So there are some challenges there, and I think he knows it, and I think Democrats are ready to take him up on them.

JIM LEHRER: Michael, what — is there a historical standard for judging speakers of the House?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: Yes.

One is getting reelected. That means that their party has done well, and they have also done well with the people in their party. And that doesn’t always happen.

In the case of a party that was out of office, the Republicans kicked out their majority leader, Charles Halleck, in 1965, in favor of Gerald Ford. So, they don’t always hang on.

But the thing that is exciting for me is that, historically, I have read about all these cases in which we have had houses of Congress since World War II where there were schisms. And, in a way, we have really got three parties of Congress now, the Democrats, and establishment Republicans, and then Tea Party Republicans and their allies.

It’s a little bit like the “Boll Weevils” under Ronald Reagan, conservative Democrats who voted with him on some of his budget programs and others — early 1960s, conservative Democrats who opposed civil rights bills by John Kennedy and the liberals in Congress.

But maybe the best one is 1952 to 1954. Dwight Eisenhower came in, figured he’d have a great time, Republican Congress, but, in fact, a lot of the senators were very isolationist. They even proposed something called the Bricker Amendment that would have almost kept a president from negotiating treaties.

Eisenhower said of his own Senate leader, William Knowland, in his case, there seems to be no final answer to the question, how stupid can you get? He didn’t have a happy time. But there is a history of this.

JIM LEHRER: Michael, I read somewhere that Nicholas Longworth, who was the House speaker in the 1920s, was John Boehner’s — he said that’s his — the model he’s going to use.

What does that tell about how…

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: My guess is, he will not use that model for too long.

JIM LEHRER: Why not?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Because Nicholas Longworth was one of the richest, most elite people to serve in the House in American history, came from a rich family in Cincinnati.

JIM LEHRER: So, that was the connection, do you think?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Most exclusive club in Harvard University.

My guess is, that wouldn’t go over too much these days. I think he was simply saying: He and I are both from Cincinnati.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Norm, the idea of the term divided government is used, does it apply in this case, when you have got a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate and a Republican House? Is it still divided in a way that fits the plan?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Oh, yes, it certainly does, Jim.

And while it’s not as typical as situations when you have one party controlling Congress and the other controlling the White House, we have seen this before. We had it, for example, during the Reagan years, when we had one chamber switch in an election, and not the other.

But it complicates matters. And it complicates matters in almost every respect. For Boehner and the Republicans, one part of it is that they have a little bit more freedom in passing almost anything that they want through the House, knowing that it’s probably not going to make it through the Senate.

JIM LEHRER: And if it does, the president will veto, right.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: The president will veto it.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: For Mitch McConnell, it means, as minority leader, it becomes much more complicated, because he doesn’t have the responsibility for governing in any fashion in his party, but his party does in some ways.

And he’s going to have to carry along at least some of the reputation of what happens in the House and explain to his own partisans and the 10 Republicans who are up in 2012 to their primary constituents — and, remember, this is a group of primary people who knocked…

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: … out some conservative Republicans — why they’re not going along with some of the fire-breathing policies passed by the House.

JIM LEHRER: Michael, you know, some people say, hey, divided government is a good thing. More gets accomplished when there’s divided government than does when everybody is in the same party.

Does the record support that?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Not much. And I think what James Madison would say is, divided government is terrific, because you don’t have government taking over the United States and becoming dictatorial. That’s what he was worried about.

But the interesting thing is that, if you look at the history, it would suggest that these Tea Party people have absolutely no percentage in going along with the establishment Republicans.

JIM LEHRER: Why not?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: If they go back for reelection in two years and say, gee, I was really wrong, I got to Washington, and I really found out that some of the things I said in my campaign were a little bit way out, they’re not likely to get reelected.

So, you’re going to have a very interesting schism on that side. But the interesting thing for all of this is that, in cases like this, there have been opportunities for a president to actually make calm and work with the establishment in the house of Congress that he does not have.

Case in point, Dwight Eisenhower dealt with Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, got a lot of things done in foreign policy that his Republicans wouldn’t do — same thing with Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s.

JIM LEHRER: Conventional wisdom, Norm, being that, if you have divided government, you have to have compromise, or nothing gets done, and the public won’t stand for that.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And it may work that way in some areas, Jim, but it’s going to be much harder.

And just to follow up on Michael’s point, one of the absolute ironclad pledges of Boehner and Republicans during the campaign in their Pledge for America was they were going to cut $100 billion out of discretionary domestic spending when they first got there.

Already, before the first day is out, they’re saying, well, it may be closer to $50 billion, maybe even a little bit less. And, of course, right after the election, Boehner told his incoming members, we’re going to have to be grownups here when it comes to things like the debt ceiling being reached.

And most of them, in fact, the overwhelming majority of the news ones, say, no way are we going to do that.

So, we have got some interesting dynamics ahead.

JIM LEHRER: Well, for instance, the other point that the incoming Republicans have already said, they want to undo a lot of what the Democratic Congress and the Democratic president have enacted. What does the record tell us — show us about undoing?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It doesn’t happen too often.

JIM LEHRER: Is that right?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: In 1952, as mild a candidate as Dwight Eisenhower said, elect me, and we will talk about getting rid of Social Security, opposing the Soviets in Europe, not with containment, by rolling back militarily.

All those things really went out the window, because, A, it was campaign rhetoric, and, B, once they got to power, they saw how difficult these things really are.

JIM LEHRER: And with the makeup of the Senate and the president there, it’s going to be hard, is it not?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Yes. Those things are not going to happen. They can probably bollix up the works in terms of the implementation of the health care plan.

But it was interesting. You know, as we watched Boehner and talking about a new openness in the House and how he said he wants to have open rules and really let the minority play more of a role, so the first thing they’re going to do next week is a straight up-and-down vote, with no amendments allowed and limited debate, on repeal of the health care plan.

It’s very much like what happened when Speaker Pelosi came in and talked about now opening up to the minority, but started with those six big things in ’06. And, of course, those we have to do to get through.

When you start off on that foot, it doesn’t make it easy to — even within the House, to have some sort of agreement.

JIM LEHRER: Welcome to the new Congress, gentlemen. Thank you.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Should be fascinating. Thank you, Jim.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: A good year ahead.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.