WASHINGTON -- House Speaker John Boehner says the country is at odds with Washington lawmakers on the economy and people will see the evidence in the November election.
"The American people will vote their pocketbook," Boehner told the Tribune-Review from his Capitol office. "This election is going to be about President Barack Obama's economic policies. They failed. Matter of fact, I'd argue they made things worse."
Sixteen months after taking the gavel as the 61st House speaker, the Cincinnati Republican who grew up in a Democratic household with 11 siblings said he's focused on holding his party's majority. The GOP has a 242-190 advantage in the House, with three vacated Democratic seats unfilled, and would have to lose 25 seats to lose the majority.
Boehner intends to spend this summer and fall campaigning for colleagues and new Republican candidates on ballots. He knows that partisanship and the divisional politics of last year's budget and debt reduction talks caused voters to view Congress caustically, resulting in a historically low 15 percent public approval rate in the most recent polls.
"It is lower than it has ever been," Boehner acknowledged. "People are concerned about the future of the country. They are concerned about their kids and their grandkids, and they don't see Washington answering the call. They don't see the solutions to the problems."
He stands behind his April prediction that the Republican Party has a two-thirds chance of keeping control of the House.
"I rattled a lot of cages when I said it, but the fact is we have a lot of challenges here," he said. "You never know what is going to affect the political environment over the next six months. If the election were today, I would say we would have a 100 percent chance of holding the House."
His biggest frustration since becoming speaker was his inability to reach an agreement with Obama over the budget, Boehner said.
"Even though we had an agreement, he walked away from it," he said. "It was a real disappointment because it would have done an awful lot to lessen the uncertainty around the economy" and in turn prod investors to reinvest in American businesses.
Negotiations between the White House and the speaker over the budget and reduction of the nation's more than $15 trillion debt ended with dramatic stalemates. Congress narrowly avoided two government shutdowns by passing stopgap spending bills but never approved a budget, though the House passed its version.
In August, lawmakers passed the Budget Control Act of 2011 that increased the debt limit but created a bipartisan "super committee" of 12 members of Congress to identify at least $1.5 trillion in future reductions. That committee failed its task, setting up another budget battle for the coming year.
The Obama administration referred the Tribune-Review to its position when debt-reduction negotiations collapsed in July and both sides blamed each other. Obama said it was Boehner who called off talks despite a pending fair deal.
"It's hard to understand why Speaker Boehner would walk away from this kind of deal," Obama told reporters then.
Rep. Mike Doyle, a Forest Hills Democrat, thinks Boehner has a rough job running a House filled with Tea Party freshmen. Sixty-two of 89 new members are Republicans elected in 2010.
"I like John a lot, but I don't envy him his job," said Doyle, an ally of Boehner's predecessor as speaker, California Democrat Nancy Pelosi. Doyle sometimes plays golf with Boehner.
Doyle blames new House members for divisional politics that led to budget and debt reduction failures. "They are extremists," he said.
Rep. Mike Kelly, a Butler businessman elected with the Tea Party wave two years ago, agrees that the speaker's job is a tough one.
Boehner, he said, "really is a remarkable guy. Remember, he is the speaker of the whole House, not just the Republicans."
Kelly believes Boehner took the budget deal collapse personally. "He went to the president and said, 'Let's hold hands and jump off this bridge together and get things done right for the country,' and the president walked out on him," Kelly said.
Boehner thinks the House is doing its job, but points out, "Democrats run the Senate, they run the White House, and as I like to say, it takes two to tango. While I think we are doing great work here, it would be great to have some partners to address the problems that the American people expect us to solve."
He calls his relationship with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada "direct" but his relationship with the White House "disappointing."
Between now and the fall election, Boehner said he'll try to visit each state, working to keep GOP seats and get new Republicans elected -- such as Keith Rothfus, a Sewickley attorney challenging Democrat Mark Critz in Pennsylvania's redrawn 12th Congressional District. Rothfus nearly won in 2010 against Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire of McCandless, whom Critz defeated in last month's primary.
Boehner, whose daughter and son-in-law moved to Pittsburgh last summer, thinks jobs directly and indirectly connected to the energy industry in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia could tip the presidential election toward Republican Mitt Romney.
Forty-one percent of Democrats in West Virginia -- where coal miners are angry about Obama's economic and environmental policies -- last week voted for a felon in a Texas prison rather than the president, though many likely did not know candidate Keith Judd's background.
"Those types of voters are in all three of our states," Boehner said about the Democratic protest vote.
He predicts the tone of this election will turn ugly. "Because the president's policies have failed, he has had to turn to the politics of envy and division," he said.
Boehner holds out hope that that won't work with voters.
"It is not the way Americans think," he said. "It is not the way they act."
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