As election nears, Boehner calls for Congress to reform, Democrats call him agent of gridlock

By David Espo, AP
Thursday, September 30, 2010

Boehner urges congressional reform as vote nears

WASHINGTON — Jettisoning partisan campaign-season rhetoric, if only for a moment, House Republican leader John Boehner said Thursday that both parties bear the blame for “dysfunction in Congress” and urged lawmakers to adopt a cut-as-you-go-rule to curb their appetite for spending on new federal programs.

The Ohio Republican spoke hours after engineering a final partisan, pre-election showdown on the House floor, and one senior Democrat, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, swiftly denounced him as an agent of “gridlock and failure.”

Separately, top Democrats met with President Barack Obama at the White House for a review of strategy in a congressional election campaign with scarcely a month left to run. Officials said the chief executive was urged to woo independent voters who helped him win the White House and now appear to be swinging toward the Republicans.

Polls point toward major gains for Republicans in both the House and Senate in a midterm election overshadowed by recession, but Democrats have lately said they are increasingly optimistic about holding their majorities in both.

Boehner is in line to become speaker of the House this fall if Republicans capture the 40 seats they need to gain control. His speech, coupled with the adjournment of Congress until after the elections, inaugurated the final intensive stretch of the campaign. Already, millions of dollars worth of harshly negative television commercials are running in dozens of congressional districts and Senate races, with the prospect of many more as the candidates, their parties and independent groups maneuver for victory.

“The dysfunction in Congress is not new. Both parties bear the blame for it,” Boehner said. “But the dysfunction has now reached a tipping point — a point at which none of us can credibly deny that it is having a negative impact on the people we serve.”

He said the House had failed to pass a budget this year for the first time since 1974, and that not once in the current two-year Congress had lawmakers been permitted to offer unlimited amendments to legislation.

Both criticisms were obviously aimed at majority Democrats, but Boehner did not mention them by name.

Instead, his speech appeared designed in part to win the support of independents as well as other voters troubled by the partisan bickering in Washington.

He also floated suggestions for limiting federal spending, including a requirement for lawmakers to offset any cost of establishing new programs — a proposal that appeared more aimed at holding the backing of conservatives who form the core of Republican support. Boehner spoke at the American Enterprise Institute, a Republican-oriented think tank.

Democrats responded a short while later at a news conference in which they sharply challenged Boehner’s description of Congress as ineffective.

Citing legislation on health care, an economic stimulus measure, a bill to regulate Wall Street and more, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said rank-and-file Democrats departed Washington to campaign “with a spirit of optimism, very pleased about taking the message of fighting for the middle class, of moving America forward and not going back.”

Hoyer added that the economy has added about 3 million jobs, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who chairs the party’s campaign committee, said Republicans had spent two years doing the bidding of special interests that he said are now “spending millions of dollars around the country trying to defeat people who are trying to rein in their power.”

Democratic officials said the White House meeting focused on both the campaign and an agenda for a postelection session of Congress.

According to one official, one lawmaker urged the president to pay particular attention to independent voters, who abandoned the Republicans in the 2006 and 2008 elections, and now appear to be swinging back to the GOP. Obama also was encouraged to attack Republicans for failing to crack down on companies that ship jobs overseas — a key point for Democrats as they try to blunt voter anger over the recession — and to point out to voters that Republicans voted for a budget in 2009 that would have cut deeply into Medicare.

The officials who described the session did so on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss it publicly, and the name of the lawmaker offering campaign advice to the president was not disclosed. Obama returned to the White House Wednesday evening after a three-day campaign swing, including an appearance in Madison, Wis., at the University of Wisconsin that drew an estimated 25,000.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats bickered to the end Wednesday night, at Boehner’s initiation. When Pelosi sought a routine vote to adjourn, the Republican leader complained that Democrats were leaving the Capitol without taking a vote to extend expiring tax cuts.

Boehner urged lawmakers to remain at work until they acted on the legislation. The Democratic leadership prevailed by a single vote, after 39 members of their rank and file sided with Republicans.

Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.

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