Boehner loosens up, talks Obama, freshmen and tending bar

Once his formal speech was done, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) loosened up.

After delivering an economic address Thursday in Washington, Boehner stayed on stage for a question-and-answer session with David Rubenstein of the Economic Club of Washington. The more relaxed Speaker discussed some campaign politics, cracked a few jokes and shed some light on his first eight months at the helm of the House.

• Don’t expect another effort between Boehner and President Obama to strike a “grand bargain” on deficit reduction. The leaders were close to a $4 trillion deal this summer before talks broke down. Any hopes for a far-reaching accord now rest with the deficit reduction supercommittee, Boehner said. “The committee is now charged with doing that work,” he said. “And I frankly think it would be hard to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.” The Speaker added that he has “a very good relationship” with Obama but said, as he has before, that the two come from “different worlds” ideologically.

• Contrary to widespread assumptions, Boehner said the 87 freshman Republicans “have not really been a big headache.” The bigger problems, he suggested, have come from some unnamed veteran House Republicans. “Whatever I do is never good enough,” he said. “I understand that. … There’s always some. They stir up some problems. It’s just to be expected.”

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Boehner did reveal a few hints about his arm-twisting style. “I don’t do anger,” the Speaker said. He said he tries to bring reluctant members along “gently,” although he recalled that on one bill he had to take a tougher line with a pair of freshmen, or “a couple of young whippersnappers,” as he called them. “I brought them into my office and closed the door,” Boehner recalled. “I said, ‘Boys, that door is not going to open until you say yes. It could be 30 seconds, 30 minutes, doesn’t matter. … But I’ve got a week and a half’s worth of cigarettes in that chest over there.’ It took about 45 minutes.”

On a more serious note, Boehner said he didn’t realize at first how much more difficult his job had become after the House swore off earmarks, which party leaders had historically used to essentially buy the votes of fence-sitting members on key measures. “When you look at that big deficit-reduction deal we got passed, typically that would have cost the leadership $10 billion or $20 billion worth of goodies — a bridge here, a hospital there,” Boehner said. “It was the first time in our country’s history that there’s been no earmarks in any of these bills this year. And so it made getting the big deal harder, but I didn’t quite realize it at the time.”

• The Speaker dodged an opportunity to weigh in on the GOP presidential race, but he did crack a joke at the possibility, however remote, that he would be tapped as the vice presidential nominee in 2012. “It’s hard enough for me to go to the funerals of people I know,” he said. Of the 2012 field, Boehner said: “We’ve got a lot of great candidates. I love all of them.” When the audience laughed, he added: “Well some of them I love more than others.”

• Boehner jokingly compared the challenges of growing up with a big family — he has 11 brothers and sisters — to the job of Speaker. “Chaos,” he quipped when asked to describe his upbringing with so many siblings. “The same kind of thing I deal with every day.” He said he also drew life lessons from his time working at his family’s bar. “You have to learn to deal with every jackass who walks through the door,” he said to laughs. “Trust me, I need all the skills I learned growing up.”

• The country, not to mention the financial markets, might have been nervous about a looming default during the debt-limit fight, but Boehner said the long summer of brinksmanship didn’t keep him up at night. “I slept well every night,” he said. “And I never worried about the outcome. I’ve done the stress thing before, and it doesn’t accomplish anything.”

• On Iraq, the Speaker suggested the United States should keep forces there past the end of the year amid a rise in violence as American forces withdraw. “It’s clear that the Iraqis are not in a position to be able to defend themselves,” Boehner said. “We have obligations there, and we should not be precipitous and put at risk this fledgling democracy in the Middle East.”

• Boehner said the more open legislative process he has sought to institute is helping to foster bipartisanship by forcing members on committees to work closer together. After criticizing previous majorities for writing legislation out of the Speaker’s office, Boehner has given more responsibility back to committees. “I can tell you, so far, so good,” he said. “Members on both sides of the aisle are very happy about the process.”

• The Ohio Republican might be happy in his job but don’t accuse him of having fun. “I’m happy that I got the job,” he said. “People ask me if we’re having fun. Hell no, I’m not having fun! Let me tell you what fun is.” He repeated that he didn’t want to become Speaker for the title, but to accomplish something for the country. “It’s that mission that drives me every day, keeps me excited, keeps me engaged. But I’d like to accomplish that mission and get the hell out of here.” He quickly clarified: “I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.”