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John Boehner says reducing spending 'not rocket science'

By Dana Bash, CNN Senior Congressional Correspondent
  • House GOP leader discusses the "Pledge to America"
  • Boehner hopes to be the next House Speaker
  • Democrats challenge Boehner's claim of unspent stimulus funds

Sterling, Virginia (CNN) -- House Republican Leader John Boehner suggested Thursday the Republicans' pledge to extend all Bush-era tax cuts is crucial to fixing the economy, even if it adds an estimated $4 trillion dollars to the deficit.

"You can't solve the deficit problem until you get your arms around spending and have a healthy economy. And you can't have a healthy economy if you raise taxes on the American people," the Ohio congressman told CNN in an exclusive interview.

Speaking minutes after House Republicans unveiled their so-called "Pledge for America" agenda for governing, Boehner declined to give many specifics on how Republicans would fulfill their promise to reduce federal spending back to 2008 levels.

"It's not rocket science. Let's start with all of the TARP funds. Let's get the TARP money back and use it to pay down our debt. Let's bring all the unspent stimulus money back. You know, the stimulus was supposed to create jobs in America and it hasn't," said Boehner.

When pressed for examples of other cuts he would make, he repeated his call to return unspent stimulus and bailout funds to the federal treasury.

"There's $700 billion right there, " he said.

House Republicans are making clear that one of the key goals of their new agenda is to try to change the way Washington works, and is perceived.

A Democratic mantra is that Boehner is too cozy with Washington lobbyists. Boehner was unapologetic.

"I talk to everybody. You know, I'm one of the most open, transparent members of - of Congress. I have conversations with people who lobby me in my district, every place I go in the country. And, yes, there are some lobbyists in DC, believe it or not," he said.

"I'm a small business guy who stumbled into this political arena. And when people talk about my relationship with the business community, I'm sorry, I am the business community. That's who I am - the - the heart and soul of me. And when I see government, like I did as a small employer, choke the goose that's laying the golden egg, that's what drove me here, to fight for a government that allows the American people and the private sector to be the - the engine of opportunity for all Americans," said Boehner.

So no restrictions on lobbyists? It's going to stay the same?

"Look, we've got a lot of things that we've got to deal with over the next few months. We'll deal with them as they come up," Boehner responded.

The White House has increasingly personalized its opposition to Republicans in recent weeks by singling out Boehner.

Even before that, he did not have much of a relationship with the President.

But Boehner predicted that may change soon.

"We're not especially close. But I suspect, in the coming months, we're going to have an opportunity to get a lot closer," he said.

Boehner, who helped craft the House Republicans 1994 Contract With America, called the agenda unveiled now "certainly more substantive than what was in the Contract with America 16 years ago."

One of the promises in House Republicans' new "Pledge to America" is to allow any lawmaker to call for a vote on any amendment to cut spending.

Does that mean he would allow votes on controversial proposals some Republicans are campaigning on, like cutting the Department of Education?

"If members want to offer amendments, why shouldn't they be able to?" Boehner said. "let's let the House work its will...all of us can defend our votes."

The Ohio Republican would not entertain the idea being floated by some of his colleagues that Republicans should be prepared to shut down the government in order to hold the line on spending.

But what if Republicans are successful in cutting spending and the President uses his veto pen? If Republicans are not willing to shut down the government, will they just cave?

Boehner would not answer that question, saying "I'm not going to get into what ifs. I'm hopeful that the President will sign it. You know, I was a born optimist."

And on the question of whether he thinks he will become Speaker of the House after November's elections?

"That's our goal. We've got a long way to go, but that is our goal. And if we're successful in getting back the majority, we will fight for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government."

In a statement later Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office said the $700 billion figure mentioned by Boehner as unspent stimulus money was erroneous.

The statement cited a report by, a non-partisan website by the St. Petersburg Times newspaper, as saying Boehner had made a similar erroneous claim about unspent stimulus funding in an August 8 television interview. According to, the amount of unspent stimulus money at that time was around $200 billion.