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Boehner: GOP Must Offer 'Better Solutions' In 2009

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) meets with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Barack Obama in the first days of the new Congress. (Getty Images)

President Obama has taken office with the promise that he will transcend old divisions. Whether he's successful may depend partly on House Minority Leader John Boehner, who has pledged that Republicans will not be the "party of 'no.' " But that doesn't mean he agrees with Democrats on every issue.

Take, for example, this argument Obama made in his inaugural address:

"What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."

Asked whether the president is correct in saying that the long-running debating over big vs. small government is over, Boehner told NPR's Steve Inskeep, "I'm not sure that anyone knows exactly what he was trying to say.

"Clearly, in our society, there is a role for government. And by and large, liberals tend to believe that government's the answer for almost anything," Boehner said. "I and most Republicans believe that a smaller, less costly government gives us a healthier economy and a healthier society."

That difference of opinion produces tension — especially when it comes to finding solutions to economic problems, says Boehner, who expects to be a voice of opposition even as he works with the Democratic majority in Congress and the White House.

The Ohio lawmaker has criticized parts of the Democrats' proposed stimulus plan, including a provision that would direct $400 million to NASA to study global warming.

"Remember, the goal of the stimulus package is to preserve jobs and help create new jobs in America," Boehner said. "And I don't know how giving NASA $400 million to study global warming is going to meet the goals."

Besides, he said, money has already been allocated to the CIA to study global warming.

Although most House members "think that climate change is a serious issue that needs to be addressed," Boehner said the best way to do that remains in doubt.

"We've never gotten into the debate and the discussion about the consequences of trying to deal with it, and how expensive it will be and the changes it will make to our society," Boehner said. "And the fact that if we don't have our industrial partners around the world engage with us, what does that mean in terms of job loss in the U.S.?"

Asked if he thinks global warming is going to be a central issue of 2009, Boehner said he does.

"We're going to have debates," he said. "We're going to start to see policy proposals; we've had a lot of discussion. But there hasn't really been any serious policy proposals laid on the table. There really hasn't been the challenge of different ideas. I think that's likely to start this year."

Regarding how that debate might occur — given the Democratic majority in the House and Senate and a Democratic president in office, Boehner said, "Part of our job is to work with the new administration, to work with our Democratic colleagues, when we think what they're doing is in the nation's best interest."

There will be disagreements, he said, but that doesn't mean there can't be discussion.

"Our job is not to be the party of 'no,' " Boehner said. "We need to be willing to put our solutions out there — or what I would call our better solutions. And if we're not willing to put our better solution out there, then we ought to reconsider the position we're taking."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In his Inaugural address Mr. Obama offered this new view of reality.

(Soundbite of Inaugural Address)

President BARACK OBAMA: What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.

MONTAGNE: That's a big part of the president's appeal. He promises to transcend old divisions. Whether he delivers may depend in part on the man we'll meet next. John Boehner of Ohio is the Republican leader in the House of Representatives. The day after the inauguration, Congressman Boehner stepped into his office, stirred up the flames in a corner fireplace, and sat down to talk with Steve Inskeep.

INSKEEP: Is the president correct when he says that long-running debate over the size of government, big versus small government, is over or different?

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; House Minority Leader): I'm not sure that anyone knows exactly what he was trying to say. Clearly, in our society, there's a role for government, and you know, by and large liberals tend to believe that government's the answer to almost anything. I and most Republicans believe that a smaller, less costly government gives us a healthier economy and a healthier society. And so, that tension between the two parties has been there. I don't think it goes away. And if you look at this effort to stimulate our ailing economy, those differences are going to play themselves out.

INSKEEP: When I looked at a recent statement of yours about this economic stimulus plan, you raised concern about a number of spending items, and one was a $400 million to NASA to study global warming. What made that an item of concern for you?

Rep. BOEHNER: Remember, the goal of the stimulus package is to preserve jobs and help create new jobs in America. And I don't know how giving NASA $400 million to study global warming is going to meet the goals. You know, we just gave the CIA last year a big chunk of money to study global warming; now, we're going to give NASA money. I don't know how that translates into fixing up our economy.

INSKEEP: When I saw that item, I did wonder, though, if, when it comes to that issue, which is very huge too many people, that we're still in the same place that we've been for a number of years, that the political parties are in a different place as to how important global warming is and how much of a sacrifice or how much of an effort needs to be made to fight it.

Rep. BOEHNER: I think most members think that the climate change is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. The question is, how do you address it? And we've never got into the debate and the discussion about the consequences of trying to deal with it and how expensive it will be and the changes it will make to our society. And the fact that if we don't have our industrial partners around the world engage with us, what does that mean in terms of job loss in the U.S.?

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking about that because, of course, there's been this Kyoto Protocol in affect for a number of years that has restricted a number of overseas countries and has not restricted the United States. The opposite, actually, has been the case for the last decade or so.

Rep. BOEHNER: Well, I think America will be interested in the discussion and the debate that is likely to come up this year.

INSKEEP: Do you think that this is going to be a major subject to the year, although it hasn't really been discussed that much in the last couple of months?

Rep. BOEHNER: I do. I really do. I think it's a - we going to hear the conversation. We're going to have debates. We're going to start to see policy proposals. We've had a lot of discussion, but there hasn't really been any serious policy proposals laid on the table. There really hasn't been the challenge of different ideas, and I think that is likely to start this year.

INSKEEP: That leads to another issue, Congressman Boehner. We should mention that while the minority in the Senate has a great deal of power - they can stop the entire business of the Senate - the minority in the House doesn't have the same power.

Rep. BOEHNER: That is correct.

INSKEEP: (Laughing) You say with your eyes rolling.

How do you make sure that your voice is heard?

Rep. BOEHNER: Well, part of our job is to work with the new administration, to work with our Democratic colleagues, when we think what they're doing is in the nation's best interest. Sometimes, we're going to disagree. But I think, as I said on the opening day when I handed Nancy Pelosi the gavel, our job is not to be the party of no.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking in more practical terms. Do you have to wait until Democrats are divided on some issue and then you have an opportunity, because your votes will be needed?

Rep. BOEHNER: Oh, I think we'll have opportunities as the year goes on. Not every Democrat thinks alike, and there are a number of Democrats from moderate to conservative districts who ran almost like Republicans and will tend to vote almost like Republicans. But it's our challenge to put better ideas for the American people on the table.

INSKEEP: Well, Congressman Boehner, thanks very much.

Rep. BOEHNER: My pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Congressman John Boehner of Ohio is the Republican leader in the House of Representatives. He spoke with Steve in his office at the Capitol.

INSKEEP: It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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