Six months after becoming majority leader, Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, sat down this week with The Washington Times to discuss Republican priorities and negotiations in Congress to pass an immigration reform bill.
Question: What is the real likelihood of passing an immigration bill this year?
Answer: I'd say the chances are 2-to-1 before the end of the year.
Q: Honestly? Both sides are pretty dug in.
A: I've had senators talk to me -- Democrats and Republicans -- who want to move on. Our hearings are having an effect on them. So, I think there's a way to get there.
Q: Which side will have to give in?
A: We'll know more on Labor Day after we go through August and the hearings.
Q: You were among the 17 House Republicans who voted against the House enforcement-only bill. Why?
A: There were issues in my jurisdiction [as chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee] in the bill. I was being denied my jurisdiction. Finally, they gave me my jurisdiction for 24 hours, which got under my skin. The employer provisions in there on verification -- I wanted to do my work. I thought the Judiciary Committee work was haphazard, and I thought the employer provisions were nothing but unfunded mandates.
Q: How so?
A: Requiring them to look at all workers -- all their workers, not new hires, all their existing employees -- there's no system to verify that, and we're talking about a huge database run by the federal government. Scares me to death.
And so, for all those reasons, it was just easier to vote no.
In hindsight, I was probably more angry about jurisdiction than I was about the provision itself.
Q: If you hadn't been upset about how it was handled, would you have voted for it?
A: Yeah. I voted for the fence. I voted for a lot of the amendments to make it tougher.
Q: You've since become one of its biggest supporters.
A: As majority leader, it's my job to ensure that our members get a good bill to vote on. Getting bills in shape to bring to the floor is an important part of my job. While most of that is done by the committees, there's always a certain amount of massaging that has to be done to make sure it fits who we are as a party. When it comes to the immigration issue, there's no issue more important on our agenda to get right than this bill. All you have to do is go back and look at the '86 act that had a few weak points to realize the ramifications that can occur if it's not done right.
Secondly, on the politics. The politics of this are very touchy and are very difficult. So getting the policy and getting the politics right are really important for our members. It's our job to lead on this effort.
Q: Isn't there a good chance that voters say Republicans control the White House and both chambers of Congress and you can't get this done?
A: We don't know that yet. There's a big debate about whether it's better to do a bill before the election or do one after. Nobody knows the answer to that question.
The polling supports our position. What we're going to do is go out and expose issues in the Reid-Kennedy [Senate] bill that don't pass the straight-face test, which I think strengthens our hand as we negotiate with the Senate. And I can tell you, we are in a hundred times stronger position today than we were three months ago.
Q: Speaking of the straight-face test, why is it that you insist upon calling it the Reid-Kennedy bill when it was authored by Republicans and was pushed through the Senate by Republican leadership?
A: Because two-thirds of those who voted for it, all right, are Democrats.
Q: Senate Republicans were far more instrumental in passing the Senate bill than Democrats were.
A: Hey, we all have a job to do, and I'm doing mine. And it's the Reid-Kennedy bill.
Q: One of the biggest obstacles for any guest-worker program is birthright citizenship, which means any child born on U.S. soil to a guest-worker automatically becomes a citizen. Do you support ending that right?
A: I'm not the expert on that issue. Trying to come to agreement with the Senate is gong to be very difficult, and you've watched me for three or four months and not really disclose anything about where I stand on anything. I don't want to close anything out or bring anything in. We have enough problems without leadership running their lips about what the bill ought to look like.
Q: Irrespective of the current bill, do you support ending birthright citizenship?
A: I don't know. I really don't know.
Q: Many conservatives blame Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist for passing the Senate bill that would grant citizenship rights for some 10 million illegal aliens. How much do you blame him?
A: The Senate is a very different institution than the House. They have a set of dynamics that are different than ours. There's no reason to criticize anyone over there. They have to do what they have to do. I'm the House majority leader. I have enough to worry about over here.
Q: But Mr. Frist could have insisted on an enforcement-only approach like the House.
A: He had [Sen. Mel] Martinez[ of Florida], [Sen. Chuck] Hagel [of Nebraska], [Sen. John] McCain to deal with. I don't know what all the problems were. I assume he passed what he could pass.
Q: Could you envision Republicans supporting Mr. Frist in the presidential primary given his support of the Senate immigration bill?
A: I'm not going there.
Q: White House spokesman Tony Snow recently told reporters that "the administration has moved more aggressively and more rapidly than either House in Congress had previously proposed in getting assets to the border to try to secure the border." Do you take issue with that?
A: They are doing a lot. We have appropriated a lot of money over the last four or five years to the border, to the point they're having difficulty spending it quick enough. Training Border Patrol agents is a long process, 18 months. It just takes time. But they've done an awful lot down there.
I don't know how much more you could spend wisely in the short term. There are only so many agents you can train at a time. There's only so many contracts that can be let and trying to do it the right way. They're doing a lot. You can argue that they're's not much more they can reasonably do in the short term other than what's already in the process to occur.
Q: Spending by the federal government continues to balloon despite Republicans' controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress. How can you still claim the mantle of fiscal discipline and shrinking government?
A: You've got entitlement spending then you got discretionary spending. If you look at where the growth is, yes it's homeland security, it's defense. The rest of discretionary spending is flat. The real driving force is the double-digit increases annually in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.
Q: Where does Social Security reform stand?
A: I just met with Congressman [Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican], a few minutes ago with his SAFE Commission [formed to fix the entitlement programs]. In 1990 when I first ran for Congress, I talked about the need to reform these big entitlement programs because the sooner we began the process, the easier it would be to make the necessary changes so that these programs were sustainable for the long term. Here it is 16 years later and while we've done some things on Medicare of the market reforms in the prescription-drug bill will pay big dividends -- we as a nation need to step up to this tsunami that's racing right at us and deal with it.
I talked to the president about it because I threw cold water on his commission idea. You know, typically, when politicians don't want to deal with something, they create commissions. I have had serious conversations with the Senate about a joint select committee -- made up of the chairs and subcommittee chairs and maybe a few other interested -- members to deal with this. Democrats didn't want to participate.
If I'm around in a leadership role come January, we're going to get serious about this.
Q: But by not running on the issue in the current election, aren't you repeating the mistake of 2004 where President Bush didn't run on it and after the election Democrats said Republicans didn't have a mandate to do anything?
A: I think voters give us credit when we have the courage to do what's right. They may not like it. But at the end of the day, they give us credit for standing up and dealing with something.
When you start talking about a problem this big I've seen the numbers, but people in America don't see the numbers considerable time is gonna have to be spent laying out the problem. Politicians always start by talking about solution to a problem that most people don't know is a problem. That's what got the president in trouble on Social Security. More time should have been spent laying out the problem.
But running a big campaign to make the kind of changes that are necessary to these entitlement programs has to also be looked at over a longer time frame.
This pension bill I've worked on for six years. You've got to look at solving the problem over a longer time frame.
Q: The pension bill is aimed at fixing a much smaller problem and y'all can't get that done.
A: We're going to get it done. It's very complicated. It's very difficult. But it's going to have major impact on American workers for a long period of time. It's good stuff.
Q: Back to spending in general, the size of the federal government continues to grow.
A: You take out homeland security and you take out defense and the entitlement programs and you're looking at a flat budget.
We're going to have an earmark-reform proposal on the floor when we get back after Labor Day. It will be for appropriations bills, authorization bills and tax codes. It's going to require disclosure of votes in the report and a name attached to them.
Q: What are three things the federal government currently does that you'd like to cut?
A: As a 16-year member of the agriculture committee and one of the authors of Freedom to Farm, what I was trying to do was to get the federal government out of the farm business. There is a role for the government to play but what we've done for 70 years has not really helped farmers. I'm a big believer in that. Changing the farm program dramatically would be in the best interest of farmers and taxpayers.
The way we attempt to manipulate the market in terms of setting target prices and loan rates and paying farmers deficiency rates works against the interest of farmers and taxpayers.
What's the technology program down at the Commerce Department? Clinton put it in? It's not for us to be picking winners and losers. The market can take care of that much better than we can.
There's one I'd like to talk about but I don't think I can: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It's time to wean them away from us. I'm watching TV the other day, PBS station, and I see this ad. It used to be kind of a mention, then it got to be a longer ad well now it's the whole ad. They have a market for their programming. They have people who are willing to give them money for their programming. They do not need us anymore.