U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., says he supports House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to be the next speaker of the House. In a lengthy Thursday interview with the Times-Free Press editorial board, Fleischmann also said he is hopeful that Congress will be able to agree on a budget and avoid a threatened government shutdown.
GOP rules in the House require that any nominee for speaker get not just a majority of GOP members, but an outright majority in the House, or 218 votes.
"In my opinion, he is the only person who could get to 218 right now," Fleischmann said of Ryan. But if Ryan, who has repeatedly said he won't run, sticks to that decision, Fleischmann said, he is not certain who he would support.
A group of the most conservative Republican members in the House that calls itself the Freedom Caucus has about 30 members. That's enough to deny the nomination to any candidate who does not meet with their approval. While a candidate could successfully squeak by with the support of only a handful of Freedom Caucus members, Fleischmann said he believes it is important that any nominee for speaker have the support of most party members.
One way to do that might be to open up House rules to make it easier for any member to bring an issue to the House floor for a vote, Fleischmann said. That's been a major concern of some Freedom Caucus members, who claim that current speaker Rep. John Boehner has made it difficult to draw attention to their issues.
Fleischmann said that, in talking to constituents in his district this week, he is hearing frustration with the continuing confusion in the House.
"There is dissatisfaction that there is the turmoil there," he said.
Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lee said he thinks Ryan sees the speakership as a "dead end" given the GOP's war with itself. He was amused by the situation that both Fleischmann and his fellow Republicans find themselves in.
"It looks right now their choices are pretty limited," Lee said. "I don't think this is a job that people are lining up for. At this point, it seems like more people are running away from than running for speaker of the House."
Lee said Fleischmann has "jumped" to Boehner's tune in the past.
"No doubt about it, he's been in the pocket of the speaker. The speaker's done all his thinking for him. He's relied totally on Boehner to be his entire brain."
The GOP turmoil is coming at a time when Congress faces several key budgetary challenges — the need to pass a budget by Dec. 11, a decision on whether to raise the nation's overall debt ceiling, and a vote on a proposed transportation budget. Fleischmann said he hopes a full budget can be passed by the Dec. 11 deadline to avoid a government shutdown. He said he opposed any temporary solution, such as a continuing resolution to keep the government running for a few months more until a budget is adopted.
Fleischmann said he would even consider a two-year budget plan, if the alternative is no budget at all. But while a two-year budget would end uncertainty over funding for things he supports, such as defense spending, Fleischmann said he worries that it would also lessen congressional oversight over government agencies that normally have to come to Capitol Hill every year to defend their budgets.
He said he is in favor of raising the ceiling on the maximum debt the U.S. can incur, another hotly debated issue that will come before Congress later this year.
"The debt ceiling will ultimately have to be raised," he said. "This is money that has been spent and the American people would not stand for a default." But the congressman emphasized that Congress must find some way to stop the growth of mandatory spending required for Social Security, Medicare and other programs.
Fleischmann argued that a particular need is for Congress to adopt a transportation budget. The nation's roads and bridges need repairs, he said, and the funds also create jobs. But lawmakers have been unable to agree on a source of funding for transportation expenses.
The Third District congressman also discussed the GOP presidential race, where he is the Tennessee state chairman for the campaign of former Mississippi Gov. Mike Huckabee. While Huckabee has not been doing well in national polls, with recent surveys showing his support among GOP voters in the 3-4 percent range, Fleischmann said he believes Huckabee will do well in Iowa, where he won the caucuses in 2008. And he believes Tennessee, which holds its primary March 1 along with 11 other states (including Georgia and Alabama), will be important in deciding the GOP nominee.
Fleischmann seemed cautiously optimistic that this fall he will avoid the bruising primary battles that characterized his first three election contests. He reported recently that he has raised almost $800,000 in cash for his campaign, and thus far, no challenger has announced.
While he emphasized that it is not his decision to make, he said he doesn't believe state lawmakers should take away some of the financial incentives offered to Volkswagen to build its auto assembly plant in Chattanooga, despite the German company's recent admission that it had rigged emission test results to avoid pollution rules. "I think Volkswagen needs to get its house in order," he said, "but we need to realize that when we made the investment and got Volkswagen here, thousands of East Tennesseans put their livelihood on the line I want to be sure they have these jobs long term."
At the outset of the interview, Fleischmann touted his work promoting increased technical education opportunities for local students, a topic he has focused on this year.
Many U.S. industries are reporting a shortage of skilled labor, he said, but often students are not pursuing degrees in the fields where the jobs are available.
"Young people are not viewing jobs in manufacturing as glamorous or worthwhile," Fleischmann said. "They think the work is demeaning and dirty, when in fact these jobs are paying $50-$60-$70,000 a year."
Andy Sher contributed to this story.
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