Boehner voices skepticism on budget accord prospects

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WASHINGTON -- House Speaker John Boehner expressed doubts Wednesday that the Republican-led House and Democratic-controlled Senate could reach agreement on a budget and avoid automatic spending cuts that could jeopardize economic growth.

In a post-State of the Union interview, Mr. Boehner, R-Ohio, was also skeptical about President Barack Obama's new proposal for federally supported universal preschool. And he showed little support for the president's core proposals on immigration overhaul and gun control, including universal background checks.

But it is the economy and the deficit that are atop the congressional priority list as Mr. Obama and lawmakers face looming fiscal crises confronting the nation: the deep automatic spending cuts, called a "sequester," to take effect March 1, followed by the government running out of money to fund federal agencies March 27.

Mr. Boehner has also pressed for Washington to get back to passing regular budgets. But he expressed pessimism about whether that was possible given the deep divisions on Capitol Hill. "It's hard to imagine that you could reconcile what the House and Senate pass, but at some point, in some manner, it almost has to happen if we're going to deal with our long-term spending problem," he said.

Mr. Boehner also reiterated his opposition to letting the sequester take effect, and served up a reality check to members of his caucus who say publicly that they would be willing to let the $85 billion in across-the-board cuts take effect March 1. "None of them have ever lived under a sequester. For that matter, neither have I," he said. "This is going to be a little bleak around here when this actually happens and people actually have to make decisions."

The president wants to put off the sequester through a combination of targeted spending cuts and increased tax revenue. Republicans want to offset the sequester with spending cuts alone.

Mr. Obama also used the prime-time speech Tuesday to call for action on a broad agenda that included the economy, guns, immigration, taxes and climate change. He offered new initiatives on voting, on manufacturing and on research and development. He said he wanted to raise the minimum wage, lower energy use and expand preschool programs for all 4-year-olds.

While Mr. Obama left out key details of the preschool program, including the federal cost, administration officials said ahead of Tuesday's speech that the proposal would include the government providing financial incentives to assist states. The president is expected to campaign on the proposal today in Georgia.

Mr. Boehner questioned the need for the federal government to get involved in early childhood education, saying it was "a good way to screw it up."

During a visit Wednesday to Asheville, N.C., Mr. Obama promoted his ideas on creating jobs and closing the income gap between the wealthiest and middle-income Americans. The president used a retrofitted former Volvo plant to make a case for proposals to encourage companies that have operated overseas to bring back jobs to the United States.

The president also used his State of the Union address to call upon Congress to pass comprehensive immigration legislation, with a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants, and to hold votes on a series of gun-control measures introduced after the shootings of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn.

Mr. Boehner has been noncommittal on his position regarding key components of both proposals.

On immigration, the speaker said in the interview that he was "encouraged" by bipartisan congressional efforts to address immigration overhaul. But he refused to take a position on providing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, including for young people brought to the country illegally. "I'm not getting myself locked into a corner on what I'm for or what I'm against," he said.

On gun control, Mr. Boehner wouldn't commit to holding votes on universal background checks or bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Instead, he focused on exploring the link between mass shootings and mental health. "What I don't want to be is parceled into some political stunt that has no impact on the problem," he said.

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