The FRONTLINE Interview: John Boehner
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Mr. Speaker, let’s start out with — first off, some people call you, at heart, an institutionalist and a dealmaker. Do they have that pretty well right?
Well, I’m a guy that believes that we were sent here to deal with the big problems facing America. I didn’t need to be speaker because I needed a fancy title or a big office. I wanted to be speaker so I could lead an effort to deal with the serious issues that are facing our country.
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… A lot of the 2010 Republicans that won had been using that in their campaign, that they would never raise the debt ceiling. … It was talked about as an opportunity. So explain to me your point of view about how the debt ceiling was looked at. Was it seen as an opportunity? And if so, why?
I believed it was an opportunity for the Congress to use the leverage of having to increase the debt ceiling, to try to come to an agreement, to deal with a big debt problem that’s threatening our entitlement programs and, frankly, threatening the future for our kids and our grandkids. A lot of people didn’t see it that way.
But when you looked at the final votes along the way, it wasn’t the freshmen that were our biggest problem. They were more senior members.
Conservatives inside of the party, though?
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Some people say that you were in a tough situation. You were dealing with a conservative segment of the party that wasn’t willing to go very far at all. You were dealing with a president who had completely different points of view. How difficult was your situation?
It was awful. There’s no other way to say it. But there was a consensus, both from Democrats and Republicans here in Washington, that $5 trillion worth of additional debt over the last four years was pushing us toward a debt crisis. It’s coming. I don’t know when it’s going to get here, but we know it’s coming.
And the need to deal with our spending problems is critically important. Every family in America knows they have to do a budget. Every small business in America knows they have to do a budget. Every local government, every state, knows they have to do a budget. And for Washington not to deal with the budget crisis that we’re facing, the debt crisis, was totally irresponsible.
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June 18, there’s the famous golf game. Take us a little bit into that meeting. …
There was a lot of talk right after the Republicans won the majority in November 2010, a lot of talk from the White House about the time for the president and the speaker to get together and play golf.
Beyond that, though, once we got into January 2011, I began to talk to the president about the need to deal with our budget problem and the fact that we have a historic opportunity to be able to come to an agreement. And numerous times during the winter and spring of 2011, I suggested to the president that we had to get serious about this.
And so we played golf. And before the golf match started, I told the president, I said, “Mr. President, this is about golf, not about anything else.” And he and I were partners. We played well, and we won.
But afterward, we were having a soft drink at the clubhouse with a lot of the soldiers and airmen that were there. And toward the end of it, I suggested to the president, “Why don’t we have a conversation?” And he agreed. And so a couple of days later, I went to the White House, and the president and I sat out on the Truman Balcony and had a serious conversation about how we might be able to do this.
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[highlight name=”Why he put revenue on the table”]
[Then-White House Chief of Staff] Bill Daley told us, when we sat down with him, that it wasn’t until the $800 billion in revenue was put on the table that things really started becoming serious. What was your view about that? Was it a dangerous situation for you to be talking revenue — and I understand you can define exactly what revenue meant. But was it a dangerous situation for you, because there were a lot of conservatives in your party that didn’t even want to bring that word up. How dangerous was it to your speakership?
Well, it was very dangerous. But it became clear to me that the president wasn’t going to deal with the spending problem without having a conversation about revenues.
We always believed that, through tax reform, there were lower rates for everyone, I’d get rid of the loopholes and the nonsense, and that we would have a more efficient tax system, that it would spur economic growth. And as a result, we’d have more revenue for the federal government.
So I felt comfortable putting revenue on the table as a way of trying to get the president to be serious about the spending problem that we have.
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By July 17, that Sunday, take us into that meeting a bit. That was the very optimistic point. The president comes back from Mass, sits down with you and [House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor [R-Va.] in the Oval Office. What took place? What did the president say at that point? How optimistic were you that there was possibly a deal that was going to be done?
When we walked into that room, it was clear that we had an agreement, that there was $800 billion in revenues, more than that in reductions and reforms on the spending side. And there, in effect, was an agreement. The only thing left were a couple little knotty details that the staff were working on. So I was very optimistic.
And the president, what was he saying?
He was very optimistic as well. He felt like we had been through months of conversations, felt like we were in the right place. He was happy, and so was I.
So what happens? The “Gang of Six” comes out and has that meeting where it comes out what their thoughts are on this process. It changes the offer from the White House. Explain what took place, in your view, of what happened.
Well, you know, the president — first, though, it was the White House staff telling my staff: “Well, things have changed. We’re going to have to change this offer a little bit.”
And then we got to about Thursday. The staff weren’t getting anywhere. As a matter of fact, the White House was backing up. And the president called me and said, “I’ve got to have $400 billion more.”
I said: “Mr. President, you’re not going to get a dime over $800 billion. I can’t do this.” And we talked about it for a few minutes. But he continued to push for more revenue.
And I told the president, I said: “Mr. President, we had an agreement. We had an agreement on Sunday. And, you know, if I make an agreement with someone, I’ve got to live up to the agreement that I made.” But he wanted more revenue, wanted more revenue.
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It’s been reported — and you tell us what the truth is — that you actually sat down with Cantor, sat down with some of the other leadership, and talked about the possibility of accepting the offer or giving back a counteroffer and that [Rep. Steve] LaTourette [R-Ohio] came in and talked to you and sort of said: “Hey, if you do this, you know, you’re gone. You can’t do this.” What happened in that situation?
Well, no. I had some of my own staff at that point sit me down and say, “Boehner, if you continue to go down this path with the president, and you put more revenue on the table, you’re risking your speakership.” I said, “Listen, if I think this is in the best interest of the country, so be it.”
So I wasn’t at all worried about my speakership. My entire focus was trying to do the right things for the right reasons. We’ve got a spending problem; it’s imperiling the country; it’s time to be honest with it.
But over the course of the last three or four weeks leading up to that, I had also been in conversations with [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] and [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell [R-Ky.], because they never thought that the president and I could come to an agreement. So they had their backup plan. And those conversations went on informally during this same period of time.
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Now, at this point — and it’s about July 22 now — and all the folks at the White House would say this, both [Director of the National Economic Council and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy Gene] Sperling and Daley said that there is the famous phone call, that they’re still angry about the fact that you didn’t call them back immediately. And they said that the deal was that if they had been able to talk to you, Obama could have pulled back to the $800 billion; that they resent the fact that you guys say the goalposts were moved. They say that there was still negotiating ability there, but that, because you closed the door on them, that didn’t occur. So what’s your point of view on this?
Well, it was clear to me that the president was insisting on $400 billion in additional revenue, and then, on a staff level, there was this conversation about, “All right, well we’ll give you $800 billion, but we’ve got to take $400 billion worth of spending reductions off the table.”
In either case, they have moved the goalpost. There was an agreement three or four days before. And they knew there was an agreement. There was a lot of excitement in the Oval Office on that Sunday after the president returned from church, because we had worked all morning. We had worked out the numbers. And we were there. And so, whether it’s on the revenue side or on the spending side, they moved the goalpost on both ends.
And your response to their claim that you walked away due to division within your party, that you couldn’t get the votes?
Absolutely nonsense. I have always been able to deliver on any commitment I made to the president. What I was doing was going to Plan B. Plan B, at that point, was to see if I could work with Sen. Reid and Sen. McConnell to find another way around the debt limit crisis and the debt crisis. And once we had an agreement, I was more than happy to call the president back.
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You had always, though, been looking to go for a Grand Bargain. … At this point, was there a feeling, though, that now is not the time; that in fact what we have to do is we have to turn to elections; that this is in the hands of the public; they will decide, and then we’ll be able to come back and then accomplish this?
Well, no. Over the course of June and July, while we looked at a big deal, a medium-sized deal, a small agreement, it always became clear to me that the larger agreement would be actually easier to pass by both Democrats and Republicans. And the president went through the same evolution, if you will, in terms of looking at a smaller agreement versus a medium-sized agreement.
But it always came back to the fact that, if we did the bigger agreement, we’d both be able to bring more to the table. And that’s where I do believe the president and myself, I know, wanted to get to a much larger agreement.
And at this point, when the upcoming elections are coming up, was there a point where you basically said: “Well, you know, it’s out of my hands right now. And we were hopeful, of course, that the Republicans would take the Senate –“?
No, the bigger concern for me, at that point, was the fact that we were getting dangerously close to Aug. 2. And it also became clear to me that the president really wasn’t willing to stand up to members of his own party. And if I look through this and look back on it, it’s clear to me the president lost his courage and [was] unwilling to stand up and take on his own party, to make the kind of reforms and spending cuts that are necessary to save the future for our kids and grandkids.
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So after the election, the day after the election, you give a speech, Nov. 7, and you set out some goals that the other leadership is unified behind. What message are you sending to Obama? What are your hopes? What are your beliefs? What do you think can be done at that point?
Well, it was clear, the day after the election, that the president won. And I had been preparing for months for one of two scenarios: Either the president was going to win, or [former Gov. Mitt] Romney [R-Mass.] was going to win. And so when it was clear that the president won, I wanted to go out to the public and show the president that I was being willing to be reasonable and responsible, in terms of putting revenue on the table, to entice him to come to the table with spending cuts and reforms.
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Take us into the mood of the talks, especially the Dec. 13 meeting, which has been talked about quite a bit. This is the meeting where the president talks quite a bit. And you asked the question of, “Wait a minute,” at some point, “I’ve put $800 billion on the table. What do I get for that?” Explain what happened in that meeting. …
Well, the day after the election, I put revenue on the table. And then, throughout intervening talks, which really weren’t that many, and in terms of trying to spur the White House into action, I finally agreed to put $800 billion of revenue on the table if the president was willing to make real spending cuts and reform our entitlement programs so they are sustainable for the long term.
And in that meeting, I think it was that meeting that the president said he was tired of hearing me talk about the need to cut spending and the need to deal with our deficit problem.
The president looked at me and said: “We don’t have a spending problem. We have a health care problem.” And I acknowledge that we have a health care spending problem. But that is not the only source of our spending problem.
And it’s probably at that meeting, it became clear to me that divisions between us were wide. It was shortly after that, I put on the table — and I made it clear to the president: “Mr. President, this is my bottom line. A trillion dollars of new revenue and a trillion dollars of real spending cuts and reforms.” Those were over the next 10 years. And the president said, “Well, I can’t do that, you know.” The real numbers are, they wanted $1.3 trillion in revenue and about $850 billion worth of cuts.
Now, the president, all during his campaign, and the campaign that he started the day after the election, was all about a balanced plan. “We have to have a balanced plan.” Well, I thought a trillion dollars’ worth of revenue and a trillion dollars’ worth of cuts and reforms was a balanced plan, and that it became clear, once again, that the president wasn’t willing to stand up to his own party. There were spending cuts that we had agreed to in August or July 2011 that were taken off the table, weren’t even allowed to be discussed in December 2012.
And it was exasperating. The president was trying to do the right thing; I’m not quarreling with that. But his courage to do the right thing, his willingness to take on his own party here in the Congress — he just never stepped up to the plate.
His point at that meeting was that, “You’ve got to understand, we won the election. I won the election,” that things had changed. We’re not back in 2011 anymore. We are proceeding along in a different direction at this point. What was your take on that?
Well, I had heard, over the course of, at that point, six weeks, on a number of occasions, “Well, you have to remember, I won.” Well, Republicans maintained their majority in the U.S. House. You know, we won, too.
But it was time for us to put the differences aside and to find common ground to do what was best for the country. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do it.
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Now, you get close. By Dec. 14, it seems that you guys are a lot closer. But then by Dec. 17, you pivot to Plan B. Explain why you do.
When I gave the president my bottom line, it was my bottom line, and he came back with wanting $1.3 trillion worth of revenue, and wanted $850 billion worth of spending cuts. It just wasn’t balanced.
And so my staff reached out to his and said, “You know, we ought to probably continue this conversation.” And the White House response was: “Well, we don’t think we’re going to get anywhere. It’s a waste of time.”
At that point, I had no choice but to go to some other plan, to deal with the fact that all Americans who pay income taxes were about to get a very big increase in their income taxes.
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So the problem is that you can’t get the votes for it. And there’s the Dec. 20, 7:45 meeting, where … you pull everybody down together in the caucus room. Take us into that room, why you came to that point, your feelings about the situation as it was right now, and it seemed a pretty dire outcome. What were your feelings on that night? How did we get there?
What I was trying to do with what I called Plan B was to spur the Senate into action. And by saying, “All right, we’re going to make sure that 99 percent of the American people don’t see an increase in their taxes,” I thought it was a reasonable, responsible way to proceed.
Hindsight is 20/20. I probably should have just said, the day after the election: “The House has already done its job. We passed a bill back in May to replace the sequester. We passed a bill in August to extend all of the current tax rates.” And we should have just sat back and waited for the Senate to do its work.
But that’s not quite my nature. You know, my nature is to help facilitate, help move the process along. And I thought, by being able to pass a bill, we could put pressure on the Senate to deal with the issue of taxes going up on Americans.
I’ve got to tell you, I was very disappointed in some of my Republican colleagues, who didn’t see the wisdom of moving in that direction, because frankly, from my standpoint, we could have ended up raising taxes on fewer Americans if we had been able to pass it.
You read the Serenity Prayer that night. Why that prayer?
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I was sitting at my desk, and somebody earlier that day had brought the Serenity Prayer in. And as I was walking out the door to go downstairs, I thought, you know, this would be the right prayer. We always have prayer before we start our conferences, and I thought it fit the moment perfectly.
The gravity of that moment?
It was sad. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it was sad. There’s no one that was more disappointed than I was.
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The Williamsburg, [Va.], conference or meetings a week ago — … how did you guys come to the conclusion that it was necessary to push the debt ceiling debate down three months? …
Many of us believe the debt ceiling is a pretty serious issue, and jeopardizing the full faith and credit of the United States is not something that you want to play with.
Now, we do think there is some leverage there. But frankly, we thought there was more leverage. These automatic spending cuts that go into effect March 1, we believe, provided more leverage and less risk to the financial markets and to the economy.
And so [Rep.] Paul Ryan [R-Wis.] and I had talked around the first of the year. A week before we went to Williamsburg, Paul and I talked. And he had been talking to some of our other members outside of the leadership team. And I encouraged them to continue to talk, members from the more conservative wing, other members — I don’t want to say they were all back-benchers, but a nice group of members — and encouraged them to develop a plan.
And the question is, is the debt ceiling, as an opportunity, is it off the table? Or in three months, is this threat of possible default again something that could be an opportunity?
Well, there’s a reason that the Congress has made clear that there ought to be a statutory number or date on the debt limit. It serves as a check and balance on spending. And if you look back over the last 80 years, the Congress has used the debt limit over 100 times as a way of providing leverage to deal with the spending problems that we have.
You go back to the 1997 balanced budget agreement between the Republican Congress and President Bill Clinton, we extended the debt ceiling temporarily a couple of times until there in fact was an agreement. So it is a source of leverage. But it also serves as a check and balance on our government.
But the consequences are pretty dire.
They are dire. And because they’re dire, people take whatever that date is much more seriously.
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So where do we go from here? I mean, the next fight is the sequester debate in March. Tax cuts are already on the table. What’s your prognosis for where we’re going? …
Well, after my experience with the president over the last couple of years, it’s pretty clear to me that he’s not real serious about cutting spending. I’m hopeful that the Congress, the House of Representatives and the United States Senate can both do their work, and that we can come to an agreement that will put us on a plan and on a path to balance the budget over the next 10 years.
Is there still a deficit of trust? …
I think I would use a different word. We’ve got a big difference of opinion in terms of how big the debt problem is and what it means to our future.
The president and I have a good relationship. We understand each other perfectly well. And I know what I’m willing to do with my members. I know how far I’m willing to push them. I don’t think the president is willing to push his members as far as I’m willing to push mine.
But even though we’ve got this ideological divide, and the country is rather divided, it’s our job here in Washington to find enough common ground between these competing ideologies to do what’s in the best interest of the country. And we may not be able to do as much as I want or as little as they want, but there is some level of trying to find that common ground, to deal with the big problems that face our country.
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Someone in the film, toward the end of the film, says in the end, you’re probably the only one who wanted the Grand Bargain at the end of the debate, the discussions in 2012, early 2013. Is there a lack of statesmen in Washington now that are willing to go for the big ideas? I mean, what’s the problem?
As I said earlier, we’ve got a real ideological divide. We’ve got a very liberal president, very conservative House Republican majority. That makes bridging our differences that much more difficult.
I think the big issue is courage. We need more people here with enough courage to do what has to be done. You can’t continue to spend money you don’t have. You can’t continue to imperil the future for your kids and your grandkids. You can’t let programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid just go bankrupt. We need adults here who have enough courage to stand up and do the right thing.
And is that a problem as well in your party, as well as with the Democrats?
It crosses both party aisles, no question.
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If it comes to a situation where Obama seems to come around more on dealing with the entitlement problems, dealing with the deficit in a serious way, but it doesn’t come far enough for some of the more conservative members of the Republican party, would you be willing to suspend the Hastert rule [the need for a majority of the majority] to bring further votes up on the House floor?
I’ve made clear that we’re going to hold out for custom reforms that will put us on a path to balance the budget over the next 10 years. It’s a pretty tall order. And we’re in for, I think, frankly, a pretty epic battle here in the coming months over whether Washington is willing to deal with our debt problem.
The fact that the members of your caucus voted down the final vote in 2013, on the 2nd, that morning, what does that tell us?
I don’t think it says a whole lot. They weren’t happy with what the Senate had negotiated. We were on the verge of having every American pay higher taxes. And while it wasn’t the greatest deal in the world, it was worthy of our support, and I supported it.
Leader Cantor didn’t. Why the divide?
Listen, Eric and I work very closely together, and we have the same goals. We want to get our economy going again and put Americans back to work. We both believe that dealing with our spending problem is an important step in that direction.
But there are times where our tactics are going to be a little different. It’s to be expected.
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What was lost by the fact that the Republicans didn’t win the White House, the Republicans didn’t win the Senate back in this past election?
Well, what it means is that our vision of how to balance the budget over the next 10 years isn’t going to happen. We’ll get a different person in the White House who doesn’t share that view. And while we sit here in January, a lot of people still haven’t gotten over the election. Well, that will change in the coming months.
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There’s an animosity that people see out there [when] the public looks at Washington and doesn’t understand. I guess one of the stories that has been told, that sort of defines that, is the Dec. 28 White House meeting, where you and Leader Reid have some words. What was that all about? What does that tell us about the mood of what was going on?
Hey, listen, Sen. Reid and I are close friends. We’ve got to work together. But just like any close friends, sometimes you just need to clear the air. And we did.
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Well said. After the election, you call Paul Ryan up and you say: “Get back here. We need you.” What’s the important role that Paul Ryan plays now? How do you work with him?
Paul has been the chairman of our Budget Committee. I wanted him to continue to serve in that role.
But Paul is also a great voice for us when it comes to how to grow our economy and how to put more Americans back to work. Pro-growth economic policies are his forte. And having that voice is important, because if we’re serious about solving America’s spending problem, we’ve got to do two things: We’ve got to cut spending, and we have to grow the economy that allows more Americans to get back to work and more Americans on the tax rolls. Both have to happen if we’re going to be serious about solving our long-term fiscal problems.
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We’ve talked to some people, members of your caucus, who felt you shouldn’t really be talking to the president, that you shouldn’t really be debating on the debt ceiling [in 2011]. Were you hearing that from members? Some people said it came from Majority Leader Cantor. What were you hearing from the majority leader and from members at that time?
The majority leader and I, again, we share a common interest. We knew we had to cut spending. Again, we differed on the tactics for day to day.
But at the end of this effort with the president, he was in the room with me. He understood that we were on the verge of getting what we thought was very good for the country.
But I had members, more conservative members, who just thought that sitting down with the president was a big mistake. I had some more moderate members who really thought this was not going to go well for me.
But I didn’t think I had any choice but to try. And I was born with a glass half full. I’m an optimist. And I believed that he and I could come to an agreement. Unfortunately, we didn’t.
And the talks, right after the golf game, … why were they secret from the majority leader? What was the purpose of the secrecy?
Well, no, no. The majority leader and I always knew that, at some point, the president and I were going to have to deal with some of the bigger issues that were not being dealt with in the Biden group. So there was no surprise at all that, when the president and I decided to begin having these conversations, that we weren’t about to advertise it to everyone. But we worked our way through it.