WASHINGTON – House Speaker John Boehner said Wednesday it's unlikely the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-led Senate will prevent a wave of automatic spending cuts from beginning to strike the economy in two weeks. Yet he sounded hopeful about avoiding a partial shutdown of the government when a temporary spending bill expires next month.
Cloistered in his Capitol office overlooking the National Mall, Boehner said in an interview with The Associated Press that he was skeptical of many of President Barack Obama's plans, laid out the night before in the annual State of the Union address.
Boehner voiced doubts about Obama's proposal for taxpayer-funded help for preschool education for all 4-year-olds, and would not commit to passing a pathway to citizenship for the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants, though doing so would be "somewhat helpful" to members of his party as they seek to regain support among Hispanics. "There's no magic potion that's going to solve our party's woes with Hispanics," he said.
Boehner also refused to swing behind any of Obama's gun-control proposals and said he opposed the president's plan to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour.
The Ohio Republican said he gets along well with Obama but admits their relationship hasn't generated much in the way of results, pointing to two failed rounds of budget talks in 2011 and at the end of last year. Boehner is frustrated that spending cuts Obama signaled he would agree to in 2011 have been taken off the table since the election.
"It hasn't been real productive the last two years, and frankly every time I've gotten into one of these high-profile negotiations, it's my rear end that got burnt," Boehner said. "It's just probably not the best way for our government to operate."
Obama stumped Wednesday in support of his minimum-wage plan, his calls for a manufacturing revival and his other State of the Union proposals in a trip to Asheville, N.C., where he said: "If you work full time, you shouldn't be in poverty." He takes his case to Georgia on Thursday and his hometown of Chicago on Friday, all part of his effort to build popular support for an agenda facing stiff resistance back in Washington.
"It's not a Democratic thing or a Republican thing," Obama said of his initiatives. "Our job as Americans is to restore that basic bargain that says if you work hard, if you meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead."
The immediate agenda, though, is dominated by $85 billion in automatic, across-the-board spending cuts – called a sequester in Washington-speak – set to slam the Pentagon and domestic programs over the coming seven months. Boehner said he has no plans to resurrect legislation passed by Republicans last year to block this year's sequester.
The speaker said that until Obama puts forward a plan to avoid the sequester and Senate Democrats pass it, "we're going to be stuck with it. It's going to be a little bleak around here when this actually happens and people actually have to make decisions."
Boehner noted that while plenty of GOP defense hawks are anxious about the automatic cuts, Democrats concerned with cuts to domestic programs have a lot on the line, too.
And he sounded glum about prospects that the two sides will come together in the spring on a separate, long-term budget blueprint to address the government's fiscal problems.
"It's hard to imagine that you could reconcile (the separate budgets) the House and Senate pass," Boehner said. "But at some point, in some manner, it almost has to happen if we're going to deal with our long-term spending problem."
In March, the House and Senate will take up competing long-term budget blueprints. In a break with past years, House Republicans promise to balance the budget within a decade – without additional tax increases beyond the $600 billion-plus in tax increases on wealthier earners won by Obama as part of a deal to keep the rest of the Bush-era tax cuts.
He said that an impasse with Senate Democrats, who insist their rival budget plan will raise taxes and contain softer budget cuts, is probably inevitable.
Also looming is the need to pass legislation financing the government through the budget year ending Sept. 30. Here, at least, Boehner saw some promise, predicting a resolution will pass soon to head off a partial shutdown.
Washington's most powerful Republican was also non-committal on two of Obama's top second-term initiatives: overhauling the nation's immigration laws and enacting stricter gun control measures.
On immigration, Boehner told the AP he was "encouraged" by bipartisan efforts to reform the nation's fractured laws, but wouldn't say whether he would support a bill that includes a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants. Nor would he commit to a pathway to citizenship for the so-called "dreamers" – young people brought to the U.S illegally.
"I'm not getting myself locked into a corner on what I'm for or what I'm against," he said.
On gun control, Boehner said he would consider measures passed by the Democratic-led Senate, but would not pledge to hold votes on any of Obama's core principles, including universal background checks for all gun purchasers. The expanded background checks are broadly supported by the public.
While not outright opposing background checks or Obama's other calls for limiting assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, the speaker said he preferred focusing on the link between mass shootings and mental health issues.
"When you look at all these mass shootings, almost every one of the individuals involved has a history of mental illness. So why don't we focus in on something real that really can attempt to minimize this problem, as opposed to some quick political fix that gives people a false sense of security," Boehner said. "There could be some link between mental illness and background checks. there's a nexus there where you could have some real impact."
Despite the sometimes frustrating nature of the job, Boehner says he'll run for Speaker again in two years, assuming Republicans keep control of the House.
"Absolutely. I've got a big job to do and I intend to get it done."