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Obama, Boehner and America's Newly Divided Government

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio during the first session of the 112th Congress
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio during the first session of the 112th Congress

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FAITH LAPIDUS: Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Faith Lapidus.

STEVE EMBER: And I’m Steve Ember. This week on our program, we look at the new Congress in Washington.


FAITH LAPIDUS: The one hundred twelfth Congress opened last Wednesday. The new speaker of the House of Representatives is John Boehner. The Republican from Ohio replaces Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California.

Four years ago, Ms. Pelosi became the first woman ever elected speaker. She will now serve as the minority leader.

NANCY PELOSI: "We now engage in a strong symbol of American democracy -- the peaceful and respectful exchange of power."

House Speaker John Boehner and outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi
House Speaker John Boehner and outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi

STEVE EMBER: John Boehner is sixty-one years old. He grew up the second oldest of twelve children in his family in Ohio. His father owned a bar called Andy's Cafe that his grandfather started. He says working there when he was growing up taught him how to deal with all kinds of people.

He also likes to say that his parents used what little money they had to send all their children to Catholic schools. The future House speaker worked nights as a cleaning man to pay for college.

He went on to become president of a plastics company and served in the Ohio state legislature for six years. He was first elected to the House of Representatives in nineteen ninety. He was among a group of first-term Republicans known as the "Gang of Seven" who fought to change Congress.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Last week, Mr. Boehner wiped tears from his eyes as he gave his first speech as House speaker. His new job puts him second in line to the presidency after the vice president.

JOHN BOEHNER: "The American people have humbled us. They have refreshed our memories as to just how temporary the privilege to serve is. They have reminded us that everything here is on loan from them."

FAITH LAPIDUS: And Speaker Boehner said voters sent a clear message that they are not happy with the situation in the country.

JOHN BOEHNER: "We gather here today at a time of great challenges. Nearly one in ten of our neighbors are looking for work. Health care costs are still rising for American families. Our spending has caught up with us, and our debt will soon eclipse the entire size of our entire economy.

"Hard work and tough decisions will be required of the one hundred twelfth Congress. No longer can we fall short. No longer can we kick the can down the road. The people voted to end business as usual, and today we begin carrying out their instructions."

STEVE EMBER: On the first day, House Republicans passed new rules that aim to cut government spending-- rules that Democrats criticized. The new rules say any proposed spending increases must be paid for with cuts in other areas.

Also, all legislation will have to be available for anyone to read online three days before a vote. And bills will have to list their basis in the United States Constitution.

This new attention to the Constitution included an eighty-four-minute reading of the document in the House last Thursday.


STEVE EMBER: But members did not read the parts like those about slavery that were later amended out of the Constitution.


Rep. Gabrielle Giffords
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

FAITH LAPIDUS: The House has postponed legislative actions this week because of the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat who just began her third term. (Doctors said she was in critical condition after being shot in the head but there were some hopeful signs. Latest from VOA News)

The attack happened Saturday at a public event in her home state of Arizona. President Obama called on Americans to observe a moment of silence Monday morning for the twenty people wounded or killed in the attack.

Officials say the shooting appears to have been the lone act of a troubled twenty-two-year-old man, Jared Loughner, now facing charges. Still, the shooting renewed talk and criticism of an increasingly divided political atmosphere in America.

This week, House Republicans were planning a vote to repeal the new health care law. That effort faces defeat in the Senate where Democrats still hold a majority.

The law also faces a fight in the courts, over whether the government can require people to buy coverage.

Still, the health care law represented one of a number of legislative victories for President Obama last year. That was while his Democratic Party controlled both houses of Congress. Mr. Obama also signed into law the biggest rewrite of financial rules since the nineteen thirties.

STEVE EMBER: But as the economy suffered, so did the president’s approval ratings. He was not alone.

Political experts say the last Congress was one of the most productive in American history. By December, however, only thirteen percent of Americans said they approved of the way Congress was handling its job. That was a new low in more than thirty years of public opinion findings by the Gallup organization.

By comparison, the president's approval rating was about forty-five percent after the congressional elections in November.

Those elections gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives for the first time in four years. Republicans also made gains in the Senate. President Obama took responsibility for the results.

BARACK OBAMA: "After what I’m sure was a long night for a lot of you -- and needless to say it was for me -- I can tell you that some election nights are more fun than others. Some are exhilarating; some are humbling."

FAITH LAPIDUS: Many of the new Republican members of the House are young Tea Party activists. They support tax and spending cuts and limited government.

Norman Ornstein is a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute. He says voters punished Democrats because unemployment remains high. He says the political climate may be even more divided now, since many moderate Democrats and Republicans have been replaced.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: "We’ve had plenty of times when we have had enormous tension, with the impeachment of President Nixon. We had the impeachment of President Clinton, we had the Vietnam War, we had the Iran-Contra investigation, periods when the two parties had an enormously high level of tension. But this is simply worse."


STEVE EMBER: Third-term Representative Michele Bachmann is a Republican from Minnesota and a favorite of the Tea Party movement. She talked about the trillion-dollar federal deficit on the CBS program "Face the Nation." She said Republicans have a simple message for the new Congress.

Rep. Michele Bachmann
Rep. Michele Bachmann

MICHELE BACHMANN: “Stop spending money that you do not have.”

STEVE EMBER: One of the first budget battles of two thousand eleven will center on whether to raise the debt limit in order to borrow more money.

Mike Kelly is a newly elected Republican representative from Pennsylvania.

MIKE KELLY: “Raising the debt ceiling, to me, is absolutely irresponsible. We have been spending money for so long that we do not have, and keep saying this is OK, that we will raise taxes and find it somewhere.”

FAITH LAPIDUS: The Obama administration says not raising the debt limit could leave the United States without enough money to pay its bondholders around the world.

Economic adviser Austan Goolsbee says federal budget deficits must be cut. But he said on ABC’s "This Week" program that they must not be cut in a way that damages economic recovery.

AUSTAN GOOLSBEE: “If you are going to skimp on important investments that we need to grow, you are making a mistake. The longer-run fiscal challenge facing the country is important. But that is totally different than saying we should tighten the belt in the midst of coming out of the worst recession since nineteen twenty-nine.”

STEVE EMBER: Republicans are promising to move quickly to cut tens of billions of dollars in government spending. In nineteen ninety-five, Democrat Bill Clinton faced a budget battle with a Republican-controlled Congress in his first term as president. That fight led to a temporary shutdown of government offices.

Now, President Obama faces an opposition-controlled House for the last two years of his term. Mark Penn advised President Clinton, and says President Obama will need Republican help to get things done.

MARK PENN: "Right now I think the president has got to do two key things: move to the center, focus on the economy."

STEVE EMBER: Mr. Obama has agreed to extend the tax cuts from the Bush administration for all Americans for two more years. He had wanted to extend them for all except the wealthiest Americans, but he compromised with Republicans.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Conservative commentator Amy Holmes also believes the president should move to the political center.

AMY HOLMES: "I think in the next two years, if President Obama does move to the center, if he does triangulate, much like Bill Clinton did, and pursue policies where there is common ground with Republicans, he can get small things done."

The president will soon offer some idea of how much his plans have or have not changed when he gives his State of the Union speech.

STEVE EMBER: At the White House, a reorganization has begun, in part to prepare for Mr. Obama's re-election campaign in two thousand twelve. Among the changes: the president's spokesman announced last week that he is leaving. Press secretary Robert Gibbs will become a private consultant advising President Obama.

David Axelrod, left, with Robert Gibbs
David Axelrod, left, with Robert Gibbs

Political adviser David Axelrod will be returning to Chicago to work on the campaign. And coming from Chicago will be William Daley as the new chief of staff. Mr. Daley is a banking executive with extensive business experience. He was Bill Clinton's commerce secretary. And he comes from Chicago's most powerful political family.


FAITH LAPIDUS: Our program was written and produced by Brianna Blake, with reporting by Kent Klein, Michael Bowman and Cindy Saine. I’m Faith Lapidus.

STEVE EMBER: And I’m Steve Ember. You can comment on our programs and find transcripts and MP3s at Join again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.