House Speaker John Boehner was in no mood to wait. So the day after President Barack Obama was re-elected, Boehner marched to the Rayburn Room in the Capitol building to say he was ready to deal with the White House on a long-term budget plan.
He told reporters that the election gave “a mandate for us to find a way to work together,’’ declaring that he would support higher tax revenue from wealthy taxpayers in return for Democratic concessions on reducing federal spending.
Since that announcement – which one Republican lobbyist said “put him in a position where he could be true to his members and sound reasonable to the country’’ – Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., has maintained the same tone, portraying himself as a responsible adult who is flexible enough to forge a compromise and avoid hundreds of billions of dollars of automatic spending reductions in tax increases at the end of the year that have become known as the fiscal cliff.
So while Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told CNBC-TV that the administration is “absolutely’’ prepared to go over the fiscal cliff if Republicans reject higher income tax rates for the wealthy, Boehner called that “reckless talk.’’ He told Fox News that such an outcome “will hurt our economy. It’s not fair to the American people.’’
He has refrained from the type of rhetoric and sweeping demands that so badly damaged Republicans during the past two years on budget negotiations. In doing so, Boehner has even won praise from House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who told CNBC that Boehner “legitimately wants to reach an agreement’’ to avoid the fiscal cliff.
“He’s doing the hardest job in Washington,’’ said Joel Johnson, a onetime senior adviser to former President Bill Clinton and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.. “There’s nobody more capable or savvy than Boehner about how this process could conclude in a good result for the country.’’
“The president and Democrats are asserting a mandate, but his caucus is also asserting a mandate and there’s something to that,’’ Johnson said. “He’s got a caucus that feels like this was a status-quo election and they (are) not in capitulation mode. Having said that, if this is going to work, neither side going to capitulate. They’re going to have to cooperate.’’
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a longtime Boehner ally, said that “John gets it. He understands that we weren’t hired there just to make speeches … He’s not going to sit back and allow the fiscal cliff to occur and the unemployment and the misery that will result.’’
Yet a number of Democrats suggest that Boehner’s performance has been for show and that he is an obstacle to progress. In a speech to business leaders Wednesday, Obama complained that “the holdup right now is that Speaker Boehner took a position I think the day after the campaign that said we’re willing to bring in revenue but we’re not willing to increase (income tax) rates.’’
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, asserted that Boehner could end the crisis immediately by simply allowing a House floor vote on a Senate bill that extended the 2001 and 2003 income and investment taxes for every income group except families which earn more than $250,000 a year.
Since his re-election, Obama has made it clear that he will not sign any budget deal that does not raise income tax rates for families earning more than $250,000 a year.
By contrast, Boehner has adamantly rejected higher income tax rates, offering instead as much as $800 billion in fresh tax revenue by capping deductions in the tax code for wealthy. And he has said he will not agree to any new tax revenue unless Democrats accept spending restraints in the rapidly growing entitlement programs of Social Security and Medicare, pointing out at a Friday news conference that even if Obama got the tax increases he wants “we would continue to see trillion dollar deficits for as far as the eye can see.’’
Yet the grim reality for Boehner is that if Republicans refuse to compromise, on January 1, the 2001 and 2003 income and investment tax cuts on all Americans expire, which would result in a tax increase for anyone paying income taxes. Polls have shown that voters would blame the Republicans for raising taxes on the middle class and the ensuing drag on the U.S. economy.
“I think (Boehner has) got a tough tightrope to walk,’’ said Peter Fenn, a Democratic consultant in Washington. “He’s got to deal with his caucus and he’s got to figure out what’s do-able with the president and the administration. I’ll be blunt on this: I think he’s being more hard line … towards the president in order to strengthen his hand with his own caucus.’’
So far, Boehner has retained a grip on the loyalty of most House Republicans. For every Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, who has publicly rejected any tax increase, other House Republicans have rallied to Boehner. When Boehner offered to include more tax revenue in a budget deal, every member of the House Republican leadership approved.
Those close to Boehner suggest he has adopted the only realistic strategy: Appear reasonable and show patience. They argue that sooner or later, pressure from Wall Street, the international markets and American voters will force congressional Republicans and the White House to compromise.
“He’s got to wait until it dawns on the president that it would be a very bad thing to go over the cliff,’’ said Terry Holt, a former Boehner adviser, while a Republican lobbyist with close ties to Boehner predicted that “as we get closer to Christmas, there will be big time jitters and horrible publicity for anyone who has an election certificate.’’
The ugly projections by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office also is inexorably pushing both sides to a deal. The CBO has calculated that if the government topples over the cliff, the economy will tip into a recession, which will increase the unemployment rate.
In an interview on PBS’s “The News Hour,’’ Erskine Bowles, a Democrat who chaired a debt-reduction commission for Obama, said “this is a magic moment. We have a second-term Democrat president who has put entitlements on the table with specificity. We have a Republican speaker who gets it, who understands the need for us to do something, to do it now — who has put revenues on the table.’’
Until then, voters may have to endure a great deal of political posturing. “Settle down, this is politics,’’ said Fenn, while Johnson said “it certainly seems maddening to a lot of casual observers. But ultimately, you have to bring people around to a deal, not present a deal.’’
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