Matt Lauer Worries Debt Ceiling Fight Will 'Shatter' National Unity, Urges 'Increase in Revenue'

In an interview with Speaker of the House John Boehner on Tuesday's Today on NBC, co-host Matt Lauer fretted over the upcoming debate on raising the nation's debt limit: "...after the news surfaced that Osama bin Laden had been killed there was this – a good feeling in this country....Are we going to see that unity shattered in the coming weeks when we start to debate things like the debt ceiling?"

Boehner explained the importance of addressing the issue: "45 of the last 50 years we spent more money than what we brought in. We cannot continue to do that without imprisoning the future for our kids and grandkids. So this is the moment, now, to address those problems as adults." In response, Lauer quoted Boehner's recent call for cutting trillions in spending and wondered: "When you look at the gut-wrenching negotiations that took place to get $39 billion in cuts for the 2011 continuing resolution, how in the world are you going to get trillions of dollars in cuts?"

After Boehner called for entitlement reform, Lauer played up conservative criticism against the House speaker:

Are you willing to negotiate? Because you're already getting heat, before the battle has even been joined, you're getting heat from the right side of your party. This is from the Tea Party, 'We've been deeply disappointed. Instead of a fighter for U.S. taxpayers, Mr. Boehner has been a surrenderist' – if that's a word, we looked it up, it's not – 'Who waves the white flag before the first shots are fired, before the battle is even joined.' From Michelle Bachman, 'The debt ceiling vote will offer an opportunity that was squandered during the vote for the 2011 continuing resolution.' You're in a tough spot on this.

Boehner replied: "I went to Washington 20 years ago because I thought government was too big, spent too much, and was not being held accountable. I don't feel any differently today. And this impending debt load on our kids has to be dealt with and it will be dealt with."

Lauer then decided to hit Boehner from left: "Why not use an increase in revenues? Tax hikes to help with that debt problem? What is the evidence that you can present that the tax cuts of the Bush era have actually accomplished their goals?...When the Bush era tax cuts were passed in 2001, unemployment in this country was 4.5%. Today it's at 9%, just down from 10%. So why are the Bush era tax cuts creating jobs?"

Boehner pointed out: "They created about 8 million jobs over the first ten years that they were in existence. We've lost about 5 million of those jobs during this recession. But you can't raise taxes. We can take all of the money from the wealthy and guess what? We'd hardly make a dent in the annual deficit and do nothing about the $14.3 trillion worth of debt."

Here is a full transcript of the May 10 interview:

7:09AM ET

MATT LAUER: Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner recently traveled to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. He joins us in the studio exclusively. Mr. Speaker, it's a pleasure to have you here. Thanks for coming in.

JOHN BOEHNER: Good morning.

LAUER: We could do this entire interview on the things you and President Obama disagree on and I don't want to do that, so let's start on common ground, okay. You and the President agree that we cannot walk away from our relationship with Pakistan over what's just happened in the last week or ten days, but you also both agree the Pakistanis have to answer some very difficult questions. At this moment in time when you look at Pakistan do you see a true ally?

BOEHNER: I see an ally. But clearly there are questions that remain about what they knew or didn't know about bin Laden being in their country. There are certainly some questions about their willingness to pursue some terrorists, but maybe not others.

LAUER: Do you trust them?

BOEHNER: I do trust them. But I think it's a moment when we need to look each other in the eye and decide, are we real allies? Are we going to work together? And if we are, you are either all in or you're not in.

LAUER: I hate to make it about money, but over the last decade or so, the U.S. has sent Pakistan almost $20 billion in aid, much of that aid meant to help them help us fight the war on terror. Have Americans gotten their money's worth when it comes to Pakistan?

BOEHNER: Pakistan has been a real asset when it comes to fighting the war on terror. And let's never forget that Pakistan has lost more troops and more individuals than we have here in America. So they've been an ally. They've been helpful. But there are questions and I don't think we ought to have questions. If we're going, if we're going to really be allies and we're going to fight this war together, we need to be in it together all the time.

LAUER: You know, after the news surfaced that Osama bin Laden had been killed there was this – a good feeling in this country. You know, it was not between Republicans and Democrats. There was unity, a sense of shared accomplishment that, to be honest, I hadn't seen really since 9/11, when this country pulled together. But we know it's fleeting. These emotions are fleeting. Are we going to see that unity shattered in the coming weeks when we start to debate things like the debt ceiling?

BOEHNER: Well, I don't know that what's happened to bin Laden and the capture, which is a great tribute to President Bush, President Obama, our military, and clearly the intelligence officials who took one small thread of information and were able to exploit it to determine where he was. But that's the war on terror. We've got formidable challenges here at home. Listen, you and I are here because we live the American dream, we had real opportunities. And I'm concerned those opportunities that were available to us will not be available for our kids and grandkids.

LAUER: Which leads me into the upcoming debate over the debt ceiling, it stands at $14.3 trillion. Basically if we reach that level and exceed it, we default on our loans as a country. People at home can understand that with credit cards and mortgages. You have said, and the President also agrees, it would be irresponsible to allow us to go into default. But isn't it true that the fight we're about to see over the debt ceiling is going to make the battles we saw over the budget, 2011 continuing resolution, look like child's play?

BOEHNER: Yes, that's exactly right. There – this is a window of opportunity for us to address the big challenges that face our country. For the last – 45 of the last 50 years we spent more money than what we brought in. We cannot continue to do that without imprisoning the future for our kids and grandkids. So this is the moment, now, to address those problems as adults.

LAUER: In a speech last night you said Republicans would only agree to lifting the debt ceiling if that move is accompanied by even larger spending cuts. Your words, 'Without significant spending cuts and reforms to reduce our debt there will be no debt limit increase. And the cuts should be greater than the accompanying increase in debt authority the president is given. We should be talking about cuts of trillions, not just billions.' When you look at the gut-wrenching negotiations that took place to get $39 billion in cuts for the 2011 continuing resolution, how in the world are you going to get trillions of dollars in cuts?

BOEHNER: Well, I think we need to work together. We've got really two big pots of money. We've got the discretionary part of the budget we argue about all year long, about one-third of the budget, and then we have what we call mandatory spending, mostly the big entitlement programs. we know that these programs will not exist in the future if we don't make changes to them. Because they're unaffordable for our kids and our grandkids. It's time to look each other in the eye and do what we know has to be done.

LAUER: Are you willing to negotiate? Because you're already getting heat, before the battle has even been joined, you're getting heat from the right side of your party. This is from the Tea Party, 'We've been deeply disappointed. Instead of a fighter for U.S. taxpayers, Mr. Boehner has been a surrenderist' – if that's a word, we looked it up, it's not – 'Who waves the white flag before the first shots are fired, before the battle is even joined.' From Michelle Bachman, 'The debt ceiling vote will offer an opportunity that was squandered during the vote for the 2011 continuing resolution.' You're in a tough spot on this.

BOEHNER: Listen, I'm a regular guy with a big job. And I went to Washington 20 years ago because I thought government was too big, spent too much, and was not being held accountable. I don't feel any differently today. And this impending debt load on our kids has to be dealt with and it will be dealt with.

LAUER: Why not use an increase in revenues? Tax hikes to help with that debt problem? What is the evidence that you can present that the tax cuts of the Bush era have actually accomplished their goals?

BOEHNER: Well, what you're – what some are suggesting is that we take this money from people who would invest in our economy and create jobs and we give it to the government. The fact is you can't tax the very people that we expect to invest in our economy and create jobs. Washington doesn't have a revenue problem. Washington has a spending problem.

LAUER: But when you talk about creating jobs. When the Bush era tax cuts were passed in 2001, unemployment in this country was 4.5%. Today it's at 9%, just down from 10%. So why are the Bush era tax cuts creating jobs?

BOEHNER: They created about 8 million jobs over the first ten years that they were in existence. We've lost about 5 million of those jobs during this recession. But you can't raise taxes. We can take all of the money from the wealthy and guess what? We'd hardly make a dent in the annual deficit and do nothing about the $14.3 trillion worth of debt.

LAUER: So as you sit here today, raising taxes, that's a nonstarter?

BOEHNER: It is off the table.

LAUER: Off the table.

BOEHNER: Everything else is on the table.

LAUER: Upcoming presidential election. Let me ask you, with all the people who are thinking of running on the Republican side, are you surprised that the guy who seems to have gotten the most attention to date is Donald Trump?

BOEHNER: Well, there are a lot of good candidates out there. Donald Trump would be one of them, maybe. He really hasn't said if he's running or not running .

LAUER: Could you endorse him if he were to get the nomination?

BOEHNER: But I would expect that we haven't seen all of the candidates yet. I understand my
good friend Newt Gingrich is about to announce.

LAUER: Right.

BOEHNER: I think he brings an awful lot to the debate. But there are a lot of candidates in the process of going through a presidential primary. We'll sort out the good from the bad and we'll end up with a very good candidate.

LAUER: There is a lot of interest in the Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie. Some Republicans out in Iowa seem dissatisfied with the current crop of contenders, they're planning on coming to New Jersey to ask him to run. Do you think Chris Christie would make a great  candidate for president?

BOEHNER: I do. I know him pretty well, I think he's done a great job and he speaks English, which the American people like. English, like in plain talk. But I think Mitch Daniels is looking pretty seriously at this, the Governor of Indiana. Another person who's got a real track record of reform in his state, the kind of reforms that we need to have in Washington, D.C.

LAUER: John Boehner, Speaker of the House, who is always up at this time, I want to mention, watching the Today show but doesn't love to be in front of the camera at this time.

BOEHNER: No.

LAUER: And you came in and I appreciate it very much.

BOEHNER: Thank you.

LAUER: It's nice to see you.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC