President Obama will sign on Friday three free-trade deals passed by Congress, but House Speaker John Boehner wants to set the record straight about how we got here.
According to Boehner, this victory for the economy could have been won long ago if the administration hadn’t dragged its feet, with its union base raising objections to the deals.
In an interview with NRO, Boehner says, “The president called me sometime around last Thanksgiving after they had a tentative agreement with the South Koreans. I told him, ‘Understand something. I’m for the South Koreans’ free-trade agreement, but I’m also for Colombia and Panama, and we’ve got a history around here of doing these in order, and we’re going to do all three or we’re not going to do any of them.’”
He continues, “And the president balked, and I told him the same thing in January. I made it clear to him that we were not going to deal with the South Korean free-trade deal until we dealt with Colombia and Panama.” The Left has long opposed the Colombia deal on spurious grounds, so Republicans wanted to make sure it wasn’t left behind.
It’s been a bizarre circumstance in recent months that President Obama has been touring the country, plugging for the trade deals, without sending them up, leading to the famous Josh Earnest exchange. “Then they fiddled around all year,” Boehner says, “because the unions were balking at TAA [Trade Adjustment Assistance] and balking about the trade agreements. But we finally got it done, and while the president wants to now break up his jobs bill, you’ve got to recognize this is something that’s common in their plan and our plan. Eric and I outlined this in a letter to the president about a month ago.”
Even with notional bipartisan agreement, it was a standoff until nearly the end, according to Boehner: “They weren’t going to send the bills up until we did TAA, and we told them we weren’t doing TAA until we did Colombia. . . . Finally, Harry Reid and I had an agreement on how we were going to do this, and the White House wasn’t quite buying it, the president of South Korea was on his way here, and they really had no choice but to send them up.”
Then, Republicans rallied around the bills with alacrity: “I’m really proud of my Republican team. The first time, we all see these bills passed with more than 218 Republican votes. And that’s a big sea change for our team in terms of understanding the benefits of trade. And the people had the guts to cast those votes.”
Boehner seems to agree that the president has made some headway with the public on his jobs plan. “What we’ve seen,” he says, “is that people realize the president’s got a plan, and because he’s got a plan, they support his plan. And so I’ve spent a lot of time last week holding up our plan that we outlined in May, and we’ve had a plan, we’ve been working the plan all year — and the president is out there saying we don’t have a plan.”
In a conversation with the president after the passage of the trade bills, Boehner continues, “I had to make it perfectly clear to him that we’ve had a plan. We’ve talked to him about our plan and we’ve sent a letter to him outlining areas of common agreement in the plan. But what we’ve got to do is to make sure people know we’ve got a plan and that’s what’s the big goal for this week with all the members back in their districts.”
On the rest of the jobs bill, Boehner expects Republicans to pass parts of it they find amenable while trying to avoid a huge showdown. “On a broader scale,” he says, “he’s trying his best to pick a fight with us so he can drag us into his mud puddle so we can share his problem. I told audiences this week, ‘I was born at night, but not last night.’ I’m just not going there. I’m trying to keep my colleagues from tripping into that mud puddle.”
Why are GOP poll numbers down? “At the end of March, when we finally passed a CR to fund the government that year,” he says, “and then the whole fight over the debt limit increase — you know, really, it rattled the American people. And then we get the aftereffects from what’s going on in Europe and its effect on the markets back in early August. And people don’t like the bantering back and forth. They don’t like to watch the fight. And so I’m not at all surprised that the numbers are down. But remember this, the Congress isn’t on the ballot. I’m on the ballot. Each of my colleagues is on the ballot.”
In conclusion, he says of Congress generally, “They’ve been America’s whipping boys for 200 years, and it’s not going to change.” About that, surely, everyone can agree.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.