At a breakfast meeting with television reporters and anchors this morning, House Speaker John Boehner said he doubted President Obama would deliver substantive policy prescriptions to jumpstart the sluggish economy and deal with a looming debt crisis in his State of the Union address tonight.
"I'm not real optimistic that the president will address those subjects in a way that the American people expect him to address them...but hope remains eternal," Boehner said.
The 22-year House veteran argued the president understands the nation's debt problem but lacks the will to tackle it.
"The biggest challenge in dealing with the president is that he never had the courage to take on his own party when it came to the kind of entitlement changes that need to occur," he said. Returning to the topic later in the conversation, Boehner added, "I think he'd like to deal with it. But to do the heavy lifting that needs to be done, I don't think he's got the guts to go do it."
Boehner used to insist that he and Mr. Obama were personally quite friendly, but over the past year he has grown increasingly comfortable criticizing the president's leadership style and priorities. Asked about bipartisan immigration reform legislation being crafted in the House and Senate, Boehner said, "The thing I'm most concerned about with immigration reform is the president getting in the way. Sometimes I think he'd rather have an issue than a solution."
In fact, after several failed negotiations, Boehner said he will no longer seek closed-door agreements with Mr. Obama.
"I've tried nonstop over the past two years working with the president, working with the president, working with the president. Never got there....every time, I got burned," he said. "The president doesn't believe we have a spending problem. He said it to me directly. He says we have a health care problem."
Boehner said the last time he spoke with the president was when the two men exchanged pleasantries at Mr. Obama's swearing in last month. Prior to that, he said, they had spoken on the phone before Christmas, approximately two weeks before congressional leaders and the White House arrived at a last minute deal to avert the "fiscal cliff" - a deal that was negotiated at the end by Vice President Joe Biden and Boehner's Republican counterpart in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Boehner said the strained relationship is just one sign that the president is removed from the legislative process. "It's not just me. Talk to Pelosi, Reid, McConnell, members around here. The White House just isn't engaged with Congress very much, from a presidential lever or frankly from a staff level." Boehner did acknowledge that he had spoken to the president's incoming chief of staff, Denis McDonough, by phone last week.}
But Boehner indicated that he too had no plans to pick up the phone anytime soon to hash out a deal to, a package of $1.2 trillion in cuts set to kick in on March 1 that the Congressional Budget office estimates could put close to a million jobs at risk.
"House Republicans twice last year moved bills to replace the sequester. It's time for the president and Senate Democrats to do their work," Boehner argued. He indicated that he would rather see the sequester kick in than accept a deal that includes more tax revenue increases, as the president is proposing. "I don't like the sequester, I hope we never get to the sequester, but at some point we have to deal with our debt problem," Boehner said. "The president's gotten his revenue."
The House speaker indicated that tax reform, long a GOP priority, has hit a snag after Democrats picked up seats in both the House and Senate in November. "There's a debate going on [among Republicans] about whether we can get to the kind of tax reform we want given the outcome of the election," he said. "We'd love to do tax reform. Lower rates for all, clean out the code, make it much simpler. But why go through all that effort if it's not going anywhere? Or go through that effort and have the outcome be unacceptable?"
House Ways and Means chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., Boehner noted, is in favor of pushing forward with tax reform legislation.
Boehner, who is now entering his third year as speaker, was asked to reflect on his leadership style. "Up front. Fair. Straightforward. Serious," were the terms Boehner used to describe himself. How long does he intend to wield the gavel? "I plan to be here for a while...I have no plans to leave," Boehner said, but joked, "I won't break Denny Hastert's record, let's put it that way." Hastert served as speaker for eight years.
Near the end of the hour long interview, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. popped in to shake hands. Rubio was selected by Boehner and McConnell to deliver tonight's Republican response to the president's address. "How's your speech?" a reporter asked. "It's terrible!" Rubio joked. "Are you feeling any pressure?" another asked. "Not yet!" said Rubio, as left the room.