GWEN IFILL: We turn now to our newsmaker interview with Speaker of the House John Boehner. Judy Woodruff sat down with him in his ceremonial office at the U.S. Capitol this afternoon.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Speaker John Boehner, thank you very much for talking with us.
SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: Good to be here.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So you begin this New Year with polls showing the American people have never held Congress in such low regard. Is that something that you think Congress deserves?
JOHN BOEHNER: Well, Judy, welcome to divided government. You know, the House is controlled by Republicans, Senate controlled by Democrats. We have a Democrat in the White House. And, you know, both parties have strongly-held positions. But I think the American people expect, and frankly deserve, for us -- even though we have strongly-held positions -- to find enough common ground to do what's necessary to get our economy moving again and get people back to work.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the polls also show that people think that a lot of this gridlock, and what they see that they don't like, is due to members spending more time doing partisan bickering than doing what's good for the country. Is that a fair perception?
JOHN BOEHNER: Oh, I don't think so. Because, you know, on an average day, 90 percent of the time members of Congress, both sides of the aisle, are working together and doing the people's business. But the media would only typically focus on us when we're having a disagreement, so that's really what most people see -- are the disagreements.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you -- but you're not suggesting that Congress gets along most of the time.
JOHN BOEHNER: No, we do get along most of the time. It's really rather surprising when you look at the number of bills that come through here, the number of hearings that go on where members of Congress on both sides of the aisle actually do work together to do the people's business.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So this perception that members are beholden to their base, in effect, for both parties -- and that it's hard to work --
JOHN BOEHNER: That usually only shows up on the really big bills, where there are some really strongly held beliefs. You know, the president -- when he wants to go out there and raise taxes on the American people, we believe that if you really want fairness, why don't we take the whole tax code and make it flatter and fairer for all Americans?
JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think it would take for Congress to function in a way that would be to the benefit of all the American people?
JOHN BOEHNER: I've spent a lot of time over the last year focused on the institution itself. You know, if you look back at over the last 20 years that I've been here, the process on the floor has been tighter and tighter and tighter. Where in the last -- in 2009, 2010, about five members would decide what the beginning and end of a bill were going to look like - it happened to be the same five people -- while 430 of us just literally sat on the sidelines.
I'm a big believer that we need to open up the process. And I think members of the House will tell you, both sides of the aisle, that there's a much more open process here in the House, a much fairer process for members of both political parties.
And secondly, I believe that we need to rebuild the committee system -- because if more bills have to come out of committee and come to the floor under an open process, it will require members on both sides of the aisle to begin to reach out to each other more at the committee level, beginning the process of melting some of the partisan scar tissue that's built up over the years.
JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama has had his own ups and downs in the polls. How would you describe your relationship with him?
JOHN BOEHNER: The president and I get along fine. We really do. We have a very cordial relationship. Doesn't mean we agree on everything, but the president and I have had a lot of frank conversations about the big issues that our country's facing. And whether it was the issue of the debt, whether it was the issue of foreign policy or our defense posture, we've had a lot of very good discussions. Unfortunately, we've not seen a lot of results.
JUDY WOODRUFF: How recently have you spoken with him?
JOHN BOEHNER: I talked to him just last week.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You want to tell me about what?
JOHN BOEHNER: Oh, I'm sure you'd love to know.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Because he says that he thinks you would do more - you would be able to work more with the administration, except you have members who just won't let you.
JOHN BOEHNER: When the president and I have been able to come to an agreement, there's been no issue at all in getting -- whatever the agreement was, getting it passed. I think it's an excuse that the White House uses because there're so many areas that we've not been able to come to an agreement on.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it appeared to the public last summer that you and he were pretty close to a deal on the debt ceiling -- big budget cuts, tax increases -- but that you were, in effect, held back by your own membership. Is that what happened?
JOHN BOEHNER: No, no. I was more than willing to put revenues on the table. I thought if we reformed our tax system, we could produce more revenue from it. But I told the president, I'm not going to put more revenue on the table unless you're willing to make real changes to our entitlement programs because in their current form, they're not sustainable.
The president would never say yes to any of those changes to the entitlement programs. And even though I had revenue on the table and the president hadn't said yes, he came back and wanted $500 billion more in revenue. There's a way to do this, but it takes courage. And I am more than willing to address this problem at any moment with the president, because the future of our country depends on us coming to an agreement that will begin to solve our debt problem.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But this perception, Mr. Speaker, that there is a sizable group of Republicans in the House who are more conservative, who are just - want you to go in a different direction.
JOHN BOEHNER: Well, there are certainly -- in both political parties we've got our share of divisions. And while there are some divisions within the Republican side of the aisle, they pale in comparison to the divisions on the other side of the aisle. But my job is to bring our team to do what's do-able, and work with our Senate colleagues and the White House to do the American people's work. But, you know, I'm presiding over an institution that was designed not to work. You know, the founders gave us 435 members from all across the country, one big committee to solve America's issues. It's a demanding job. But I'm glad I've got it.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What are your main priorities this year that you think you can get done?
JOHN BOEHNER: Well, I think the issue of getting - of the economy moving again and create more jobs is the number-one issue. We had a fairly good jobs report last Friday. But, you know, I would argue it wasn't good enough. You know, we still have millions of Americans asking the question, where are the jobs? And so, when we look at this year, our focus is going to continue to be on jobs, like it was last year.
We've got the federal aviation re-authorization that finally, after 23 extensions, we were able to come to an agreement with the Senate. Passed the House last week; it'll pass the Senate this week. The American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act will be up here in the next couple of weeks, taking, opening up more areas for energy development and using those new revenues -- royalty revenues -- to pay for our aging infrastructure that needs real repair. And we'll do this in a way that has no earmarks. You know, the last highway bill had 6,317 earmarks in it, little projects for members of Congress and their districts -- some of them not so little. No earmarks.
So there are some things that we can do that will get our economy going again. And, you know, the House has had our plan for American job creators since last May. We've passed 30 bills that would help our economy grow -- 27 of them are still sitting in the United States Senate. And if we're serious about jobs and the economy, the Senate has to take up some of these bills and actually act.
JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the unresolved issues from last year was the payroll tax cut extension.
JOHN BOEHNER: Yep.
JUDY WOODRUFF: There was a big hoo-ha over it in December, right before Christmas. Are your members going to be prepared to go along with a year-long extension?
JOHN BOEHNER: Our members were prepared. We passed a year-long extension in the payroll tax credit in December.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But it included material the White House - the administration, Democrats were never going to go along with.
JOHN BOEHNER: We had reasonable offsets in spending that, most of them, came from the president's own budget. And so we've done our work. We're in conference with the Senate trying to come to agreement. But it's pretty clear that our Senate colleagues want no part of cutting spending. Now, if we're going to extend the payroll tax credit, and we're going to extend unemployment benefits with reforms, and take care of the so-called doc fix, we're going to have to offset this spending. But my colleagues on the other side of the aisle don't want to offset this spending. So it's -- we're in conference with the Senate. Hopefully we'll be able to come to an agreement quickly.
JUDY WOODRUFF: On the bigger question of cutting government spending, the super committee failure, the requirement now that Congress make deep cuts in defense and deep cuts in the entitlements - is that a process that's going to hold, because a lot of members - many members are now talking about ignoring it.
JOHN BOEHNER: Well, one of the real successes from last year is that we were able to cut $2.1 trillion worth of spending over the next 10 years. Now that's already law. It's going to happen. The second part of that agreement came about as a result of the failure of the super committee. So there's another $1.2 trillion worth of spending cuts that needs to occur over the next 10 years.
And because we weren't able to come to an agreement, there's a so-called sequester - automatic cuts that go into place. I'm not happy about the sequester, the way it's made up. I think it could be replaced. I think the defense cuts in, that would take place in January of 2013 are unsustainable and will put America at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to defending our interest at home and abroad.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So you think that's going to be undone?
JOHN BOEHNER: I think that it's going to have to be replaced. We just can't undo it; it needs to be replaced.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Two questions about the campaign year. This is another year --
JOHN BOEHNER: Really?
JUDY WOODRUFF: When every single member of the House --
JOHN BOEHNER: We got some other problems with American democracy. We have elections too often. (Laughter.) And it gets in the way of doing good work here in Washington.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, your friends and the Democratic Party and the Democratic side of the House are predicting that they can take back the House majority this year, that they can win back at least the 25 seats it would take to regain the majority. What do you think? Should they be so confident?
JOHN BOEHNER: I don't think they should be that confident, but it's going to be an election. We've got redistricting going on all across the country, so members are - most members are going to be in new districts. But it -- while I think there's going to be a real fight, I think we have a reasonable opportunity to maintain the majority. I promised the American people when we took the majority that my job was to listen to them every day and to follow their will. And while it's - whether it's cutting spending or getting our economy going again, we've done what the American people have asked us to do.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, on the presidential campaign, I know you need to stay neutral. You're officially neutral, because you're the speaker. But it's pretty clear this has been a rough campaign -- a lot of personal attacks among the Republican candidates, the tone negative, the advertising negative. Are you concerned that going into the fall, that this kind of tone -- we've already seen turnout low in the early primary states. Are you concerned that could continue and hurt Republicans in the fall?
JOHN BOEHNER: Well, no one likes to see nasty campaigns. But I would remind you that the fight in 2008 between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton went on through June of that year. And so while I'd rather not see it, it's part of the political process. Out of this will come our nominee. And I don't think it'll have any impact on the November election.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Should they tone it down?
JOHN BOEHNER: Listen, I'm not going to tell them what to do. That's not my job.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Speaker, we thank you very much for talking with us today.
JOHN BOEHNER: Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.