Seated side by side on national television, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for the first time offered their unvarnished assessment of President Obama’s State of the Union address last week — and it wasn’t pretty.
In a joint interview with 60 Minutes aired Sunday night, the two leaders who are running the Congress after the GOP landslide victory in November essentially declared the heart of Obama’s proposals for helping the middle class and rebuilding the nation’s roads and bridges dead on arrival.
As correspondent Scott Pelley of CBS News went down the list of presidential proposals, Boehner rejected Obama’s plan to pay a wide range of tax breaks and credits for middle-class and lower-income Americans by raising taxes on upper-income taxpayers and financial institutions.
“Why would he want to raise taxes on people?” an incredulous Boehner said. “There’s no free lunch, and the president wants to raise taxes because he wants to increase Washington spending.”
When Pelley said “I’ll take that as a dead,” the speaker responded: “Dead. Real dead.”
Pelley got a similar response to a question about Obama’s proposal for providing two years of free education at community colleges to any young person who can qualify.
McConnell responded by saying that the nation has added more debt during the Obama years than all the presidents from George Washington down to George W. Bush. He did not mention that the nation had also gone through its worst recession and economic crisis of modern times during that period, and that both the administration and Congress shared responsibility for the increased stimulus spending.
“The last thing we need to do to these young people is add more debt, and giving away free tuition strikes me as something we can’t afford,” McConnell said. As for the long-standing effort by Obama and the Democrats to raise the minimum wage to help low-income Americans, Boehner had a brief response: “Bad idea.”
Boehner, the son of a Cincinnati bar owner, recalled: “I've had every kind of rotten job you can imagine growing up and getting myself through school, and I wouldn't have had a chance at half those jobs if the federal government had kept imposing higher minimum wage. Low-income jobs help people get skills and they can climb the economic ladder.”
In a turnabout in GOP messaging, Boehner, McConnell and a host of other GOP leaders and potential presidential candidates have signaled a commitment to addressing the rising income inequality and wage stagnation of the past few decades. But in framing the issue, the two GOP leaders blamed a big part of the problem on the Obama administration’s job-killing regulations -- and the Affordable Care Act -- for exacerbating the problem.
As Boehner and McConnell signaled clearly in their joint appearance on 60 Minutes, they were both vexed by what they considered Obama’s arrogance in delivering his State of the Union address last Tuesday night without extending an olive branch to Republicans and calling for serious negotiations. The president did devote part of his speech to the need to get past rank partisanship in Washington and called on Republicans to work with him on matters of common agreement.
Boehner and McConnell insisted — as they have before — that there are definitely areas where the two parties can come together. For example, when asked about the president’s proposed increase in a child-care tax credit, the House Speaker said that was “certainly something we’d look at.”
Boehner also pointed out that there were other ways to replenish the near bankrupt federal Highway Trust Fund besides raising the 18.3 cents per gallon gasoline tax, which hasn’t been increased in almost 20 years. A combination of tax reform and other measures just might do the trick — although many state officials and lawmakers are skeptical that can be done.
McConnell piped in that there is plenty of room for agreement on trade legislation to enhance the U.S. trade balance.
“Virtually every Republican in the audience the other night stood up and applauded when the president talked about trade,” McConnell said. “So, John is absolutely right. There are areas of agreement that we can make some progress on, and we intend to do that.”
“The fact that we differ on some things doesn't mean we can't go forward on other things,” he added.
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