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.
Read the interview transcript, after the jump:
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."
DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Mr. Boehner, you have said that you want to make all of the tax cuts permanent. And the Treasury, this would actually add $3.9 trillion of deficit. It would
take that money away from the Treasury.
So, how would you deal with that?
How would you replenish the Treasury?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), MINORITY LEADER: I think keeping tax rates at their current levels and making it permanent eliminates a lot of the uncertainty that's preventing small businesses from reinvesting in their business and hiring more employees. And 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.
BASH: So the fact that it would add nearly $4 trillion to the deficit, you'll worry about that later?
BOEHNER: I just think that we've got to have a healthy economy, where more people are working, more people are caring for themselves, their family and paying taxes if we're serious about getting America in a stronger position.
BASH: Now, you also say that you want to reduce spending levels back to 2008. That's hundreds of billions of dollars.
BOEHNER: It's $100 billion in the first year. And - and it - if you look at it, we're talking about levels that many of us thought were too high then. And it's before the stimulus, before the bailouts and before all the nonsense.
BASH: How do you recoup that money?
Can you be specific?
What in the government - what programs, what agencies - are you going to cut to get back to those levels.
BOEHNER: Well, 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. It was supposed to keep unemployment low and it hasn't. Let's take all the unspent stimulus money, bring it back to the Treasury and help pay down the debt.
There are - we've outlined $1.3 trillion worth of specific spending cuts where we can really get our arms around the out of control spending that's going on in Washington right now.
BASH: but, for example, I mean you're talking about unspent money but there is money that has been spent. And, you know, look, you talk about the rebellion out there, part of what those rebellious voters want to know is they want you to be specific, because, as you probably know - as you know, they maybe aren't that enamored of the Democrats, but they don't trust you, as the Republican machine.
BOEHNER: That's why we've outlined clearly in our pledge what we would and would not do. And I think when it comes to spending, we've been very specific about common sense steps that we can do to get government...
BASH: Give me one example.
BOEHNER: How about the unspent stimulus money? Let's stop it. Let's stop it and bring it back.
How about all the TARP funds?
No more bailouts. And no more using this money for unintended purposes. There's $700 billion right there.
BASH: Just literally outside the gates of - of where we are right now, there was a voter. He said he was Independent. He's actually registered in Florida. He says he wants to support the Republicans but he actually took the time and he read your pledge online.
And he said to me, where's the beef?
I don't - I don't see specifics, I'm not convinced. I don't think that they're ready.
BOEHNER: I think if you look at our pledge, it's certainly more substantive than what was in the Contract with America 16 years ago. And if you go through the entire pledge, there are - there are specifics that don't stop, from getting rid of the 1099s that are going to cost businesses $17 billion to comply with. And then, the IRS is going to spend $10 billion having to store all of these. There's $27 billion of waste on our economy that ought to go.
BASH: One of the things that you say that you want to do is allow any member, Democrat or Republican, to call for a vote on cutting spending. You won't stop any of - any of those requests.
So let's say somebody comes up and says, I want to have a vote to eliminate the Department of Education.
Are you willing to do that?
BOEHNER: Listen, I just think it's time for us to fix the - the - the institution of the Congress. It's broken. The American people know it's broken. The members know it's broken. Today, about five people get to decide what the outcome of the bill is going to be when there are 435 of us in the House. And I've always believed that we should have no fear in allowing the House to work its will. And I, frankly, want to give the opportunity to all 435 members to truly represent their constituents...
BOEHNER: - each of represents 650,000 people...
BASH: So is that a yes? If somebody says let’s eliminate…
BOEHNER: If members want to offer amendments, why shouldn't they be able to?
Let's let the House work its will.
BASH: No matter what kind of position it puts some of your other members in?
BOEHNER: It's - all of us can defend our votes.
BASH: Some of your colleagues have said, you know what, if it comes - comes to it, we'll shut down the government, if that's what we have to do to hold the line on spending.
Would you go that far?
BOEHNER: Our goal is to fight for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government here in Washington, DC. It's not to shut down the government.
BASH: But - let's just play this out. You're successful...
BOEHNER: Let's not get into all these...
BOEHNER: - what ifs.
BASH: - but this is serious. If you're - because what people out there are saying is we want you to prove that you really mean it this time. So if you're successful in cutting spending and the president is not happy with what you passed, he vetoes it.
Does that mean if you're not willing to shut the government, are you going to cave?
BOEHNER: We want a smaller, less costly and more accountable government in Washington and we're pledging to the American people that we will fight for that goal.
BASH: So you're not going to answer about whether or not you'll...
BOEHNER: I'm not going to get into...
BASH: - what will happen?
BOEHNER: - what ifs. I'm hopeful that the president will sign it. You know, I was a born optimist.
BASH: One other question. Democrats, as you know, are saying that you are way too cozy with lobbyists. They say that a Speaker Boehner would mean an open door policy for big money, corporate lobbyists, other - other lobbyists to come in.
What would you do to reassure people out there who say, well, that's just Washington, that that won't happen?
BASH: Will you open up your scheduling?
BOEHNER: 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.
But at the end of the day, we all ought to be judged on how we vote. I - you know, I don't do earmarks. I don't do special interest favors. It’s just not who I am. But I - you know, I - 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.
BASH: You say that you will be judged on how you vote, but a lot of what you're trying to do is change the perception in Washington. That's a lot of what you lay out...
BOEHNER: What the American people...
BASH: - so if - so how do you...
BOEHNER: - what the American people...
BASH: - how do you change the perception of...
BOEHNER: - they want results. They want the spending under control. You know, they want the uncertainty to go away. And they want us to do our best to make sure that the future for our kids and grandkids is as bright as it was for us.
BASH: So no restrictions on lobbyists? It’s going to stay the same?
BOEHNER: 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.
BASH: One last question. It is not a state secret that you and the president don't exactly have a warm and fuzzy relationship.
If you were to achieve your goals and if you were to become the next speaker of the House, how would you - how do you work with him? Maybe a golf summit, something like that?
BOEHNER: Now, listen, I like the president. I mean we get along personally.
Now, we disagree. But, yes, we're not especially close. But I suspect, in the coming months, we're going to have an opportunity to get a lot closer.
BASH: Are you going to be the speaker of the House?
BOEHNER: 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.
BASH: Forty days out, the way you see it now, are you going to achieve that goal?
BOEHNER: We've got a lot of work to do yet
BASH: No promises.
All right, thank you very much.
BOEHNER: Thank you.
BASH: Thank you, Mr. Leader.