Boehner: Obama should pay back taxpayers for campaign-style trip costs

House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday unleashed one of his harshest denunciations of President Obama since taking control of the House last year.

Boehner (R-Ohio) called on President Obama’s reelection campaign to reimburse taxpayers for the cost of a campaign-style trip to battleground states, accusing the White House of a “pathetic” attempt to stir up an election-year fight over student loans.

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“This week the president traveled across the country on taxpayers’ dime at a cost of $179,000 an hour insisting the Congress fix a problem that we were already working on. Frankly, I think this is beneath the dignity of the White House,” Boehner said at the outset of his weekly Capitol press briefing.

The Speaker’s comments came a day after Obama singled out Boehner for criticism over the student loan program during a speech at the University of Iowa.

The president has traveled to college campuses in North Carolina, Iowa and Colorado — three battleground states — and held large rallies to urge Congress to prevent a looming hike in student loan interest rates. The trip was billed as official White House business, but Boehner said that claim “didn’t pass the straight-face test” and that Obama was creating “a fake fight” purely for political purposes. The White House again defended the trip as legitimate on Thursday.



Still, House Republicans scrambled to respond to the president by rushing to the floor for a Friday vote on their own legislation preventing the interest rate increase.


“Democrats and Republicans knew this was going to take effect. Democrats and Republicans fully expected this would be taken care of,” Boehner said, “and for the president to make a campaign issue out of this and then to travel to three battleground states and go to three large college campuses on taxpayers’ money to try to make this a political issue is pathetic. 

“His campaign ought to be reimbursing the Treasury for the cost of this trip.”

The Speaker added: “Our country is facing some major economic and fiscal challenges, yet here’s the president wasting time on a fake fight to try to gain his own reelection.” 

 “This is the biggest job in the world, and I’ve never seen the president make it smaller,” Boehner said.

 Boehner’s rhetoric against the president was striking. Since taking office nearly 16 months ago, the Speaker has picked his spots in attacking the president, often steering clear of the kind of sweeping condemnations employed by more fiery members of his party. Both men have insisted that they have a cordial personal relationship despite their considerable differences on policy.

 But with the general campaign having begun in earnest and hopes dim for more legislative achievements in the next six months, Boehner is escalating his critique of Obama.

He clearly chose to take the offensive on Thursday, calling in to a radio show to attack the president before repeating his call in his scheduled press conference minutes later. And Boehner did not hold anything back. 

“The president keeps attempting to create these fake fights because he doesn’t have a record of success or a positive agenda for the country,” he said. “It’s as simple as this: The emperor has no clothes.”

Reporters pressed Boehner on whether his attack on the president was coordinated with the campaign of Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. Boehner endorsed Romney last week but said he had not spoken to the campaign or the candidate. Asked if he was doing Romney’s bidding, Boehner replied: “I’m doing my own.”

A spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, Brad Woodhouse, responded to Boehner’s attack with equally strong language.

“Let’s be clear: John Boehner is the most useless, feckless, weak and failed Speaker of the House perhaps in American history,” Woodhouse wrote in a Twitter post.

Boehner’s criticism of Obama’s travel follows by a day the Republican National Committee’s filing of a complaint with the Government Accountability Office. The complaint charged the White House with “passing off campaign travel as official events.”

The Speaker’s office was mum on whether the House might take further action to investigate or sanction the White House over its travel spending. But Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told The Hill his panel could take a look at the issue, and noted that it had investigated Defense Secretary Leon Panetta over the questionable use of his official aircraft.

“This could certainly fall under travel abuse,” Issa said of the Obama trip. “I think if the president wants to not be in a gray area and be clearly in the right area, he should make it very clear that now that he’s clearly in campaign mode, that these trips which obviously have direct a campaign relationship, both his and the vice president’s, should be reimbursed under campaign rules.”

The White House has maintained in recent months that Obama is not campaigning and that the stops are “official” business. But more and more recently the events have resembled campaign events, with crowds chanting “Four more years!”

At the White House briefing on Thursday, press secretary Jay Carney defended Obama’s travel, saying it was “obvious” that the president was on the road to tout a student loan extension

“And he did it effectively,” Carney said, pointing to the GOP’s scramble to back the issue.

“We are talking about a policy issue that needs to be acted on by Congress,” Carney said.

“This has gotten a lot of attention and Congress hopefully will act because of that,” Carney said. “I think it is eminently obvious that the president was out talking about a policy issue. And he did it effectively.

“It is also ironic to me that the arguments about this are coming from people who know that we assiduously follow all the rules in terms of the delineations between campaign travel and official travel,” he said. “Just as our predecessor did.”

He called it an effort by Republicans to politicize the issue.

“We follow these rules by the book,” Carney said, adding that they were the same rules that were in effect for former presidents. 

“When you are president you are president 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” he said.

Amie Parnes contributed.

Last updated at 8 p.m.