Boehner sceptical of Obama's agenda

ANDREW TAYLOR AND JULIE PACE
Last updated 14:19 14/02/2013

US President Barack Obama took his State of the Union message to a manufacturing plant in North Carolina - pushing to increase the minimum wage despite Republican opposition. Deborah Gembara reports.

John Boehner
YURI GRIPAS/ Reuters
REPUBLICAN: Senator John Boehner.

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The top Republican in Congress says he opposes much of the ambitious second-term agenda laid out by President Barack Obama in the annual State of the Union address.

As Obama hit the road to drum up support for his plans to hike the minimum wage, revive manufacturing and his other State of the Union proposals, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said he was sceptical of many of Obama's ideas.

Boehner expressed his doubts for the president's call for taxpayer-funded help for pre-school education for all 4-year-olds, and refused to swing behind any of Obama's gun-control proposals. He said he opposed the president's plan to raise the minimum wage to $9 (NZ$10.71) an hour.

The speaker also said he would not commit to passing a pathway to citizenship for America's 11 million illegal immigrants, though he said doing so would be "somewhat helpful" to members of his party as they seek to regain support among Hispanics, who voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in the November elections. "There's no magic potion that's going to solve our party's woes with Hispanics," he said.

Boehner also said it's unlikely the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-led Senate will prevent a wave of sharp automatic spending cuts from beginning to strike the economy in two weeks. Yet he sounded hopeful about avoiding a partial shutdown of the government when a temporary spending bill expires next month.

The Republican said he gets along well with Obama but admits their relationship hasn't generated much in the way of results, pointing to two failed rounds of budget talks in 2011 and at the end of last year, before a last-minute deal was reached to avert automatic income tax increases for all Americans. Boehner is frustrated that spending cuts Obama signalled he would agree to in 2011 have been taken off the table since the election.

"It hasn't been real productive the last two years, and frankly every time I've gotten into one of these high-profile negotiations, it's my rear end that got burnt," Boehner said. "It's just probably not the best way for our government to operate."

On immigration, Boehner told the AP he was "encouraged" by bipartisan efforts to reform the nation's fractured laws, but wouldn't say whether he would support a bill that includes a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants. Nor would he commit to a pathway to citizenship for the so-called "dreamers" - young people brought to the US illegally.

On gun control, Boehner said he would consider measures passed by the Democratic-led Senate, but would not pledge to hold votes on any of Obama's core principles, including universal background checks for all gun purchasers. The expanded background checks are broadly supported by the public.

Obama, meanwhile, takes his case to Georgia on Thursday (local time) and his hometown of Chicago on Friday, all part of his effort to build popular support for an agenda facing stiff resistance back in Washington.

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In a trip to North Carolina, he said: "If you work full time, you shouldn't be in poverty."

"It's not a Democratic thing or a Republican thing," Obama said of his initiatives. "Our job as Americans is to restore that basic bargain that says if you work hard, if you meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead."

While not outright opposing background checks or Obama's other calls for limiting assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, the speaker said he preferred focusing on the link between mass shootings and mental health issues.

The immediate agenda, though, is dominated by US$85 billion in automatic, across-the-board spending cuts - called a sequester in Washington-speak - set to slam the military and domestic programmes over the coming seven months. Boehner said he has no plans to resurrect legislation passed by Republicans last year to block this year's sequester.

The speaker said that until Obama puts forward a plan to avoid the sequester and Senate Democrats pass it, "we're going to be stuck with it".
"It's going to be a little bleak around here when this actually happens and people actually have to make decisions."

Boehner noted that while plenty of Republican defence hawks are anxious about the automatic cuts, Democrats concerned with cuts to domestic programmes have a lot on the line, too.

And he sounded glum about prospects that the two sides will come together in the spring on a separate, long-term budget blueprint to address the government's fiscal problems.

"It's hard to imagine that you could reconcile (the separate budgets) the House and Senate pass," Boehner said. "But at some point, in some manner, it almost has to happen if we're going to deal with our long-term spending problem."

- AP

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