OTR Interviews

Boehner on Debt Ceiling Talk Dysfunction: 'I Don't Want to Do Some Half-Baked Gimmick'

House Speaker gives the inside story on heated debt ceiling talks, Obama's abrupt exit from Wednesday's meeting and the dire need to cut spending


This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," July 14, 2011. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: Well, you're not going to believe this! President Obama and the Republicans now say they are taking tomorrow off. They are simply not meeting. Can you believe it? Meanwhile, President Obama says if we don't handle the debt ceiling by August 2nd, Social Security checks might not go out.

And then there's the news about our nation's credit. Yesterday, Moody's warned us about our credit rating, and just a few hours ago, Standard & Poor issued the same warning.

It's really hard to believe they're not meeting tomorrow. Are they just giving up? Now, they did meet late this afternoon, but that only lasted an hour and 19 minutes, and all reports are that they got nowhere. Yesterday's meeting was no better. It ended abruptly with the president dressing down House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and then abruptly leaving. Reports tonight are that Leader Cantor said absolutely nothing at today's meeting.

The deadline to raise the debt ceiling is only 19 days away. Is there any chance we're going to meet this deadline?

We asked Democratic congressman Chris Van Hollen and Republican congressman Paul Ryan. They are both here to go "On the Record." But first, here our Speaker of the House, John Boehner.


VAN SUSTEREN: Mr. Speaker, nice to see you, sir.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Greta, good to be with you.

VAN SUSTEREN: In watching what's going on in terms of these debt ceiling talks, should the American people -- should they worry that matters have really hit the skids with the talks, or is this sort of just a political mating dance and both sides say insulting things to each other, and eventually, it gets resolved?

BOEHNER: Well, we certainly want it to get resolved and we want it resolved before August the 2nd. All we need is for the White House to get serious about cutting spending. I've been warning the White House for months that we need to get serious about this. And yet they just -- they say all the right things, but when it comes to putting the real cuts on the table, they've been unwilling to do that.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is the president not telling you exactly what he wants to cut or is willing to cut? Is he saying, Here's the number, but I'm not going to tell you what it is?

BOEHNER: Oh, no, we don't even have a number. As I said yesterday, it's like dealing with Jell-O. It just keeps wobbling everywhere. And it's one of the reasons why I finally had to walk away from our private conversations because the president wanted to increase taxes and he would never get serious about what he was willing to cut and how far he was willing to go.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, so now you don't want to go to Camp David this weekend. You want to stay here in town at the White House, and so does Leader Pelosi, is that correct? You both said no to the president's offer to go to Camp David?

BOEHNER: Well, there was no offer. There was just some rumor floating around. And I made clear that I didn't think that was going to be very productive at all.

VAN SUSTEREN: If I understand this correctly, The Republicans have made it plain what their position is, no higher taxes, right? That's where you are. OK. And...

BOEHNER: The cuts have to exceed the increase in the debt limit, no tax increases. And we have to have real controls in place to make sure this never happens again, you know, something like a balanced budget amendment.

VAN SUSTEREN: I think the American people are probably -- if I may be so bold as to speak to them -- are a little bored with sort of patches and would sort of like a solution, whatever it may be.

BOEHNER: A real solution.

VAN SUSTEREN: Now, one of the things that Senator McConnell has suggested is sort of a three-part process, where it's -- we sort of have different stages. Are you opposed to that in the short term? And does that really sort of solve it, or does that just push it off?

BOEHNER: Senator McConnell described this as a last-ditch effort. No one wants the federal government to walk away from its obligations. No one wants the federal government to default. And as Mitch McConnell said, his proposal was a last-ditch effort if we couldn't come to an agreement.

It is not my preferred option. I think that we need to continue to solve our short-term and long-term debt issue. That means the big deal. This is the moment of opportunity. This is the window that people have been waiting for for some time, where both parties can sit down and resolve this problem once and for all.

We know what the problems are. We spend too much. The president will not get serious about cutting spending.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, when you talk about not getting serious, there's a lot of sort of e-mails flashing back and forth at the end of the day yesterday among the media that the president got up and marched off. And then Senator Harry Reid today on the Senate floor refers to Leader Cantor as childish. Is that what it's deteriorated to, a little bit of name calling?

BOEHNER: I think that the president was frustrated yesterday. But every one of us around the table are frustrated. The president got frustrated and he left rather abruptly.

VAN SUSTEREN: Appropriately or inappropriately?

BOEHNER: Oh, it was -- I think it was -- it was fine. But I think he decided the meeting was over and got up and left.

VAN SUSTEREN: Indicate he was mad? I mean, was it -- or was there any sort of indication, OK, the meeting's over, we'll talk tomorrow, or is it just, I'm out of here?

BOEHNER: Well, no. We'd already discussed meeting today, and so that was already there. But the president is frustrated. But my goodness, the rest of us are frustrated, too. I've been pushing the president all year to address this in a big way. I don't want to do some half-hearted thing. I don't want to do some half-baked gimmick. We've got a problem. The American people sent us here to solve the problem. So why don't we do what we're supposed to do, solve the problem?

VAN SUSTEREN: So when you're in the room meeting and the Republicans have laid out what you want -- and you've already told me what that is -- the president -- does he say, OK, I'm willing to do this, and then doesn't tell you what specific cuts? Because I take that it makes sort of a difference in some way to both parties what cuts are made in what areas.

BOEHNER: Whatever gets suggested, it gets debated to no end. And we've got people -- the room's too big. You know, too many people are in there trying to negotiate what is a very difficult -- could be and will be a very difficult agreement. And there's just too many people in there pouring cold water on virtually every idea that gets thrown on the table.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, I suspect that one of the problems that you have, while you personally may like something or not, you still have to come back and sell it to the House of Representatives. So there's sort of -- it isn't quite as easy as what you might want and what the president might want.

BOEHNER: Right. If we're going to come to an agreement, there's going to be plenty of difficulty on both sides of the political aisle. But I think it's time to do as much cutting as we possibly can. Otherwise, our debt is going to consume our entire economy. It's not good.

VAN SUSTEREN: Has the president given you a specific number (INAUDIBLE) make it clear...



BOEHNER: He has not.

VAN SUSTEREN: What does he say when you, Well, what's your number?

BOEHNER: Well, it depends. You know, I've been asking the president for the last two months, Mr. President, put your plan on the table.

VAN SUSTEREN: And he says?

BOEHNER: Well, we've talked about it. No, Mr. President, let's put your whole plan [on the table]. What do you really want us to do? He won't tell us.

VAN SUSTEREN: He just simply won't tell you?

BOEHNER: Won't tell us.

VAN SUSTEREN: What do you make of that? I mean, it's -- it's -- you have to -- you both need to know each other's position, at least, bargaining position. You need something to begin working from.

BOEHNER: That's the difficulty. That's why we are where we are right now.

VAN SUSTEREN: So then we go back to my question. We hit the skids. It sounds more like we've hit the skids and that this is, like, Come August 2nd, we're going go into a situation where we pass the debt ceiling.

BOEHNER: Well, no one wants to go there. We've never been there before as a country. We're not quite sure what happens after August 2nd. And frankly, there is no reason to get to August 2nd without an agreement. All it's going to take is courage, courage from Democrats and Republicans, and real courage from the president.

VAN SUSTEREN: The -- Congresswoman Bachmann talked to me last night about Social Security because that was one of the things the president says -- said something about come August 2nd, you know, maybe the checks won't go out. Does the money from the Social Security come from a different account, essentially, so that even if we do hit the debt ceiling and there is some government shutdown, those checks still go out because they are -- the revenue from them is from people working?

BOEHNER: Oh, I don't -- I don't believe so. At the end of the day, it all comes out of the general fund. And the general fund is expected to be out of cash come August 3rd or August 4th. And then the treasury secretary would have to make decisions about what to pay and what not to pay.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is there any discussion when you meet with the president about waste, fraud and overpayment? I have a -- the GAO did a huge report in March -- right here -- outlining all the problems, incredible waste that's going on in the government. Including even something like -- and it may seem like chump change, in 2009, $39 million was paid in inappropriate refunds to prisons and the billions of dollars outlined in saving there. I mean, is there ever any sort of discussion of that? Because it's sort of assessing what we need. You know, we know...

BOEHNER: It is one...

VAN SUSTEREN: We know the problems.

BOEHNER: It is one of the items that there's been some agreement on that would save $30 billion to $40 billion over the next 10 years. It involves hiring more inspectors, more people to check on these programs, more people to check on the states, who are not required to pay back mistakes that they make when they provide benefits to people.

VAN SUSTEREN: It's incredible, though, the amount of government waste that our -- that even the GAO has identified, and the overlap. And so -- and so the Americans sit back and watch, and I understand that you're trying to figure out the number for the debt ceiling. I think a lot of Americans are thinking, like, What about all the waste and fraud? Maybe -- you know, maybe if we cleaned up some of that, we wouldn't need to raise it as high.

BOEHNER: Well, it certainly is a part of the solution. But let's not kid ourselves. The problem is far larger than that. You know, today there are 10,000 Baby Boomers retiring every single day. That's 10,000 more people on Social Security, almost that many signing up for Medicare, taking advantage of these programs -- not taking advantage, they've earned these benefits. But it's draining the government of revenue faster than it's coming in.

We've been on this spending binge around here since President Obama took office. He increased domestic discretionary spending by 24 percent.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you say that to him in these meetings?

BOEHNER: Oh, yes.

VAN SUSTEREN: What does he say when you say that?

BOEHNER: Well, he was rescuing the country.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK. And then now what? I mean, my -- if I were -- if I were on the other side of the bargaining table and if I were in your position and taking your position, I'd say, OK, now what?

BOEHNER: It hasn't worked. And it's time to control the spending...

VAN SUSTEREN: And he says...

BOEHNER: ... and get it back under control.

VAN SUSTEREN: And he says?

BOEHNER: In the big picture, yes, it's time to get this under control.

VAN SUSTEREN: And how do you do that?

BOEHNER: But when we get into the specifics, Well, we can't do this and we can't did that, and, Oh, no, we have to spend more here and we need to spend more here. We never get to a real bottom line.

VAN SUSTEREN: So now what?

BOEHNER: More discussions today.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, we've had these. And it's not like August 2nd is a big surprise. I mean, we even knew back in March that August 2nd was going to come. I mean, these...

BOEHNER: We knew it in January.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, we even knew it before then. We've known it a long time. And so -- ad I -- do I understand your position that -- that if the president gave you a number and the cuts and specifics, at least that would be sort of -- enable us to move to the next stage in discussion?

BOEHNER: I think that the president was more forthcoming about what he was willing to do, how far he was willing to go. I've made it pretty clear to him how far I'm willing to go in terms of getting these programs under control, to make sure they're sustainable for the long term.

Listen, these entitlement programs are important programs for tens of millions of Americans. Yet we know they're not sustainable. We know that if we don't do anything, we're going to have to cut benefits. Well, the American people don't want their Social Security benefits reduced or their Medicare benefits reduced. That's why it's important for us to tackle this problem and tackle it now.

VAN SUSTEREN: And are you opposed to the kicking it down the road -- or I shouldn't use that phrase, to having sort of a three-stage process?

BOEHNER: I think this is the window of opportunity. I've believed it all year. I've said it all year, that this is the time to deal with it. And I do think that there is a way to deal with it, even in the short time that we have left to negotiate it.

VAN SUSTEREN: I know this is very insulting to people who work really hard to serve our country, but where does politics play into this? I know that all of you -- and I know all of you -- I see all of you work really hard. But there is -- people wonder if there's some political element to this.

BOEHNER: You know, it's -- I don't know that it's political. But what there is a big difference is that there's a difference between Republicans and Democrats. You know, I sit in this room, and I've -- over the last several weeks, and frankly, for the last several years. And it's like two groups of people from two different planets who barely understand the language of the other one. There are two remarkably different visions for what the appropriate role of the government should be in our society, what -- how our country operates. It's stark and it would shock most Americans.

VAN SUSTEREN: So then how do we get a compromise? If the Republicans have their ideology and the Democrats have their ideology and now sort of the gun is to the head of both sides and each has drawn a line in the sand?

BOEHNER: It's a matter of finding enough common ground. That's what all of these kind of agreements boil down to. Where's the common ground? Where is it that we can stand together? It's not easy to find sometimes. But I do think that where there's a will, there's a way. I think a lot of people around that room from both political parties are very sincere about trying to solve the problem. We just haven't solved it yet.