This morning’s press conference by the Republican House leadership was supposed to give the impression that Speaker John Boehner is prepared to go to the brink on the fiscal cliff negotiations with the White House. The GOP has finally coaxed President Obama to budge a bit from his previous hard-line position on raising taxes on all those who earn more than $250,000 (the president has upped the total to $400,000) leading many journalists to write yesterday as if a deal between the two sides was a foregone conclusion. But Boehner knows he needs more than the minimal spending cuts offered by the Democrats if he expects his caucus to back a gut-wrenching compromise that will require them to sign on to tax increases that they think will hurt the economy as well as offend their principles. Thus, the speaker was in front of the cameras today insisting that he would pass a version of his own current position on the fiscal cliff that would only raise taxes on those earning more than $1 million and more drastic spending cuts than those envisioned by the White House that has zero chance in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
But Boehner’s problem is that Democrats are no more impressed by his Plan B bluff than his Tea Party colleagues are by the president’s slight movement toward a deal. With polls continuing to show that the public blames the GOP more than the president for the impasse over the budget, no one in the White House or the Democratic caucus thinks the speaker’s move is anything more than the negotiating tactic of a party that knows it is in a vulnerable position.
Republicans are right to argue that the president’s insistence on raising taxes on the wealthy has little or nothing to do with balancing the budget, let alone helping an anemic recovery. Their frustration with the White House’s refusal to seriously address the deficit via entitlement reform is similarly justified. But they also know that if the fiscal cliff is reached next month without a deal in place, it will be their party and not a newly re-elected president who will be blamed for the across-the-board tax increase that will be imposed on the middle class as well as the rich. Though the president has a lot to lose by allowing the standoff to sink an already fragile economy, Boehner is sensible to the fact that a failure to compromise would be a political disaster for the GOP.
That has left the speaker in the unenviable position of having to try to make the best possible deal with the president without setting off a full-scale revolt among House Republicans.
Thus, it is likely that talk about Plan B—a proposal that is sensible but which would be dead on arrival in the Senate—has more to do with the speaker orchestrating a process by which he can secure his party’s agreement to an unpopular deal.
But unfortunately for Boehner, it isn’t terribly likely that President Obama will make it easy on him and follow up his tax offer with a more far-reaching proposal about cuts. The looks on the faces of Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Whip Kevin McCarthy this morning reflected the desperation of men who understand they have very few cards left in their hands, not the bold defiance of a party that thinks it can defy the president’s bullying tactics. Obama has spent the last month since his victory over Mitt Romney acting as if he would be just as pleased by a failure to avoid the fiscal cliff as he would be by getting his way in the talks with the Republicans.
Boehner deserves some credit for being tough enough to get Obama to make some concessions, but given the weakness of his relative position to the winner of the presidential election, those Republicans who expect him to get more are probably being unrealistic.
Though a compromise, no matter how inadequate, will be seen as a victory for Obama, in the long run it is the nation as a whole that is the big loser in a negotiation that seems destined to ensure that the country not deal with entitlement reform and the out-of-control spending that is a strategic threat to America’s future. But in the short term, it appears that Boehner’s Plan is just the prelude to an unpalatable deal that will at least allow Republicans to avoid the blame for a tax increase on everyone.