The top news out of the House Republican retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia is that the party is considering a short-term extension of the debt limit in order to give the party more time to try and convince their Democratic antagonists to start cutting spending. The proposal, which according to the New York Times, is being floated by Rep. Paul Ryan, could wind up connecting the debt ceiling issue with the deadline for the implementation of sequestration that would mandate devastating across-the-board spending cuts. That would theoretically give the GOP some room to maneuver in order to avoid a confrontation with President Obama that few think they would win. But it is hard to avoid the impression that the main object of a delay would be to deal with the Republicans’ biggest problems: a lack of unity.
Like a sports team in disarray, the GOP needs a time out where they can catch their breath and somehow get on the same page with each other. As the votes over House Speaker John Boehner’s Plan B and then the final fiscal cliff deal revealed, the party is badly split between those who don’t want to give an inch on spending and taxes, those who think that compromise with the president is inevitable and those who believe the best the party can do is to speak out for its principles and oppose tactics that will blow up the economy and help demonize the party. But the problem for the Republican leadership is that even if they can buy themselves some more time to get their fractious caucus in line, the likelihood that a confident and aggressive President Obama will either accept a short-term extension or deal honestly with them on the issues.
Democrats had good reason to celebrate President Obama’s victory in the fiscal cliff. The House Republican caucus wasn’t just routed; it was nearly torn apart, leading some observers as well as many of the president’s supporters to suppose that this was just the first of a series of triumphs in which their liberal agenda will be imposed on the nation as the GOP fades into insignificance. Perhaps they actually think the president can get away with making the deficit or the debt ceiling go away by merely minting a trillion-dollar platinum coin. But like other triumphalist predictions from both parties in the last decade, such expectations are bound to lead to severe disappointment. Republicans remain in control of the House and any idea that the president can impose further tax increases on the nation while failing to address the need for entitlement reform that is necessary to solve our long-term fiscal crisis is pure fantasy. That’s why so many on the left are pushing hard right now to persuade Republicans to give up the one clear piece of leverage they have over the budget process: the need to raise the debt ceiling within the next two months.
As Pete Wehner wrote last week, using that upcoming deadline to force the president to give in on spending cuts is a perilous enterprise. Past attempts to hold Democrats’ feet to the fire on the budget in this manner have failed miserably. Nevertheless, as I pointed out on Sunday, unilateral surrender on the debt ceiling is not an option for Speaker John Boehner. They must fight not only for the sake of the cause of fiscal sanity but to avoid a meltdown of their caucus that will strengthen the ability of Democrats to get their way on taxes and spending and lessening their own chances of a comeback in 2014. The question is how to do so without being seen as irresponsible hostage takers who don’t care about the damage a government shutdown would have on the economy. A number of ideas are floating around, but Dick Morris floated one yesterday in the Hill that is worth considering: phasing in limited debt ceiling hikes that would avoid a government shutdown but would not be enough to allow the president to avoid having to negotiate on entitlement reform and other spending issues.
On Friday, my friend and colleague Peter Wehner wrote about the question of how the Republican Party can avoid a repeat of the fiscal cliff debacle in the upcoming months as a new deadline for raising the debt ceiling looms. Throughout the last few weeks, Pete has been spot-on in his analysis of what he rightly called the Republicans’ “losing hand” as President Obama and the Democrats forced them to accept a terrible fiscal cliff deal. Though some think the debt ceiling discussion will be very different from the cliff debate, Pete fears the GOP is headed down the same path and will suffer if they allow themselves to be portrayed as holding the country hostage again. To avoid that accusation as well as what he accurately describes as the futile pretense that the president will negotiate in good faith, he advises that they preemptively take the debt ceiling issue off the table sooner rather than later.
There is much to be said for this point of view, but I don’t believe Republicans can or should do as he says. If the Republican majority in the House of Representatives were to concede on the debt ceiling now they might as well just go home and let the Democrats have their way without the fig leaf of a debate. Doing so would tear the party apart and lessen rather than enhance their chances of winning in the 2014 midterms. Though Pete is right about the calamity of a rerun of the GOP fiascos of 1995 and 2011 and 2012 when they were beaten in such confrontations, there is more than one way to lose a political fight. As much as House Republicans need to worry about being marginalized as extremists who are willing to allegedly sabotage the economy to make an ideological point, they also need to worry about playing the role of the pliant opposition that is unable and unwilling to offer a stark alternative to the Democrats.
Despite some flimsy hype that 20 Republicans were going to turn against John Boehner at the speaker vote today, nothing of the sort ended up happening. Boehner won another term, with 220 votes (considering the number of abstentions, he needed 214 votes to win a majority). But he did get some retaliation from 12 Republicans who either voted for other members or sat out the vote. Dave Weigel describes the scene:
The tiny rebellion started early in the roll call, when the chair presiding over the House called on Rep. Justin Amash. Every Republican was supposed to vote John Boehner for speaker. But the Michigan sophomore cast a vote for Rep. Raul Labrador, an Idaho sophomore who happened to be sitting stony-faced next to him. The House floor filled with awkward “Oooohs” and the occasional “Who?”
The early part of the alphabet turned out to be trouble. Rep. Paul Broun voted for Allen West—who lost his seat last year—to become speaker. John Bridenstine, a new member from Oklahoma who upset an incumbent in a 2012 primary, voted for Eric Cantor. When Cantor’s turn came, he said “John. Boehner.” with the tone of voice you’d use on a telemarketer who put you on hold for three hours.
Speaker John Boehner’s since-rescinded decision to put off a vote on a bill providing disaster relief to the victims of Hurricane Sandy turned out to be another black eye for House Republicans. The televised rage of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over the move was just one among many condemnations that were shown over and again on TV news channels. It fit right into the prevailing media narrative about congressional dysfunction as well as the idea that the House is led by extremists who don’t care about the Northeast. Given that the hurricane gave an unanticipated boost to President Obama’s re-election (though it almost certainly didn’t affect the outcome), Sandy appears to be a gift that just keeps on giving for Democrats.
Boehner had no choice but to backtrack on allowing a vote on the relief bill since to stick to his position in the face of so much opposition, including the disagreement of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, was impossible. But before we file away this episode as just another example of an unforced error on the part of the GOP, it is vital that the objections to the bill be understood outside of the context of the grandstanding on the part of Christie and others, such as Rep. Peter King. Far from being a pure relief package that hard-hearted Republicans were obstructing, the bill is a stereotypical piece of legislative pork filled with funding for projects that are unrelated to recovery from Sandy’s devastation, but which feathers the nests of supporters of various senators and members of Congress as well as federal agencies. Seen in this light, the lambasting of Boehner is just a cover for a revival of a practice the speaker and other reform-minded members thought they had already gotten ride of: earmarking.
John Boehner isn’t resigning from his position as House speaker–despite dubious Internet rumors to the contrary–but there is clearly a campaign to try to push him out. Breitbart’s website, RedState, and a group called American Majority Action seem to be at the forefront.
Boehner was already under attack from the right over last night’s fiscal cliff deal. It didn’t help that he punted on a Hurricane Sandy aid bill, sending cable-soundbite kings Chris Christie and Rep. Peter King into histrionic fits. Boehner likely calculated that the pork-filled Sandy aid bill would hurt him with conservatives after the fiscal cliff deal, so he sought a delay. But Breitbart’s website speculates that Boehner had more sinister motives:
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor broke with Speaker John Boehner on the fiscal cliff deal vote yesterday, fueling speculation that he may challenge Boehner in Thursday’s Speaker election. At the Guardian, Jim Antle writes:
It’s rare for the top two members of the House leadership to split on an important vote. Bob Michel, the hapless leader of the House Republicans during a long period in the minority, and Newt Gingrich voted differently on the 1990 “read my lips” tax increase. They split again over the 1994 assault weapons ban.
Even less common is a House speaker and majority leader going their separate ways on big-ticket legislation. The last major example is when the Democratic-controlled House debate funding President George W Bush’s surge in Iraq. House speaker Nancy Pelosi allowed the measure to proceed to the floor and voted no. House majority leader Steny Hoyer voted yes.
House speakers typically don’t even vote at all unless it is necessary to break a tie. So it may have been a clarifying moment when speaker of the House John Boehner and House majority leader Eric Cantor parted ways on the deal that ended the long national nightmare known as the fiscal cliff. Boehner voted for the bipartisan agreement negotiated between Vice-President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell; Cantor breathed the final moments of life into the opposition.
As Antle notes, despite conservative frustration with Boehner, Cantor is the only one who could potentially rally enough members behind him to seize the gavel. And Breitbart reports that there may be growing support for it:
In her Wall Street Journal column, Kimberley Strassel writes about two lessons the GOP should take from the fiscal cliff negotiations. One is that President Obama is not, and will never be, a serious negotiating partner. The second is that a house divided is a losing house. Ms. Strassel goes on to counsel the GOP to internalize these recent experiences, since the political dynamic won’t change much. In the future, she writes, Republicans “can continue the folly of believing this president will compromise” — or they can “realize that [Obama] will never be reasonable on taxes — and so they can’t give anything away.”
Ms. Strassel is always intelligent and always worth reading. But in this case there are some elements to the story that may complicate her analysis. It could be House Speaker John Boehner, based on his previous negotiations with Obama, went into the talks with the president hopeful but unconvinced he would get a deal this time. Still, Boehner may have made the calculation that he had to offer a plan that was viewed by the public as reasonable and flexible. Why? Because many Americans have (unfortunately) bought into Obama’s critique of the GOP as being obstinate. That is, even if Obama was not intent on compromising with Republicans, Boehner felt like he had to offer a deal that demonstrated the GOP was not being obstructionist and unyielding. So the speaker first offered raising $800 billion in revenues and then offered a second plan raising taxes on those making a million dollars or more.
If reports filtering out of Washington are to be believed there is a fair chance that a compromise will be reached sometime over the next three days that will head off the most unpopular aspect of the impending financial crisis: across the board tax increases for all Americans. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the compromise which may be crafted between the White House and the leaders of the House and Senate will avoid dealing with the spending cuts mandated by the sequestration process including devastating decreases for the nation’s defense.
President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have given every indication that they think it is in their interest to see the nation head over the fiscal cliff making any sort of compromise appear like a last minute rescue no matter how unfortunate its terms might be. Most Americans are of the opinion that any deal that would limit the scope of a tax increase is better than no action at all. They are right about that but the fact that it appears impossible to do anything about spending either in the short term or the long right now represents a massive failure on the part of the government. While up until now much of the public still appears to be blaming the mess on recalcitrant Republicans who oppose any tax increases, the unwillingness of the president and Senate Democrats to budge on entitlement spending even in the shadow of potential disaster may eventually lead to a shift in opinion.
Some thoughts on the Republicans pulling their Plan B tax bill from the House floor last night:
1. Speaker Boehner was embarrassed and is badly weakened. He may not be deposed since Majority Leader Eric Cantor and other key Republicans were by his side during negotiations, and they supported Plan B. Mr. Boehner is also generally well liked within his caucus. There’s no obvious person who could challenge him and win. And everyone knows the speaker was forced to play a bad hand. Still, this was a humiliation for Mr. Boehner. He may not recover from this vote of no confidence from his own members.
2. It’s possible that a new deal emerges – but it would probably have to come from the Senate. And even if Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell were to find common ground – which is far from certain – a new plan would also need to pass in the House. And as last night showed, that simply may not happen.
3. House Republicans have now managed to put themselves into a situation in which if we do go over the “fiscal cliff,” early next year President Obama will propose tax cuts for somewhere around 98 percent of the American people. If House Republicans go along with Obama, then it may dawn on them that Plan B was a significantly better deal from their perspective, since it limited tax increases to those making a million dollars or more rather than whatever lower figure Obama will propose.
In a strange about-face today, FreedomWorks has decided to withdraw its support of House Speaker John Boehner’s “Plan B” a day after declaring its support for the plan. Yesterday Dean Clancy, legislative counsel for the group, wrote “Speaker Boehner: Congratulations, you are moving in the right direction. You woke up and realized you have the power to say No to the Left. Stay the course. Go all the way to the FreedomWorks plan, and you’ll have it made in the shade.” This comes as the Heritage Foundation continues to beat the drums against Boehner’s plan, calling it, “the latest unsatisfactory proposal put forward by Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to avoid the fiscal cliff. Boehner’s plan would protect most Americans, except for millionaires, from a tax hike. But even this is a poor fix because it ignores the real problem: spending.” Heritage’s more flexible legislative arm (due to tax restraints on the non-profit Heritage Foundation), declared, “Heritage Action opposes ‘Plan B’ and will include it as a key vote on our legislative scorecard.” Club for Growth has also been forceful with its opposition to the plan, joining smaller Tea Party groups.
While conservatives are eating their own over the plan, Senate Democrats have announced that they have no plans to vote on Boehner’s “Plan B,” even if it passes a House vote, as many are promising it will. The bill will therefore be dead on arrival, despite the fact that Senate Democrats voted for a similar plan almost exactly two years ago. There are no other plans under discussion from congressional Republicans, who are spending as much time fighting with conservative groups as they are with their Democratic counterparts.
With the House Republican leadership sticking to its plans to push through a Plan B tax and spending bill today, it’s an open question as to whether House Speaker John Boehner is really bluffing about his proposal as the party’s final answer to the White House in the fiscal cliff negotiations. Considering that there is no chance that the Democrats will allow the GOP plan to pass in the Senate and that reportedly even the staffs of the two sides are not talking, right now it is entirely possible that the standoff will result in there being no deal in place prior to the Christmas holiday next week. Or is it?
There are many observers in Washington and around the nation who are convinced that Plan B is merely an elaborate bluff designed to smoke more concessions out of an administration that for all of the president’s bluster is as desperate to avoid the ruinous tax increases and spending cuts that a failure to make a deal will bring as any Republican. But considering the enormous difficulty that Boehner is having in lining up the 218 votes from his own caucus that he will need to pass his legislation, imagining him going back to Republicans in the next couple of weeks to ask for their support for what is certain to be an even more unpalatable compromise deal seems a stretch. That means that it is entirely possible that Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor mean what they say about putting off any further efforts to resolve the crisis until January. In other words, like it or not, both parties may actually be heading over the fiscal cliff with Plan B.
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.
One of the arguments some intelligent conservatives are making is that if Republicans agree to increase rates on the top earners in America, it will do irreparable damage to the GOP. The basic case goes like this:
If Obama succeeds and ends up getting a confession from Republicans that tax cuts are the problem, tax cuts are the cause, what happens to the next Republican who campaigns on tax cuts? Not going to have a prayer.
Now it may well be that raising tax rates will do significant damage to the Republican Party. It may be substantively unwise. And I’m certainly sympathetic to Republicans not wanting to play a role in something they think is bad policy.
But here’s where I think this analysis is wrong.
The latest Gallup poll has two interesting, and seemingly contradictory, findings:
President Barack Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner met at the White House on Sunday, but there has yet been no announcement of a negotiated agreement to avoid the mandated sequestration of government funds for defense and other federal spending, and the increase in tax rates for most taxpayers.
Seventy-three percent of Democrats want their leaders to compromise, little changed from 71% last week. But Republicans and independents express more widespread interest in compromise than they did last week — with Republicans moving from 55% to 67% in favor of compromise, while independents moved from 61% to 70%.
So Americans seem to want compromise — in theory. In reality, President Obama is still getting much higher approval ratings than Republican leaders in congress in the same Gallup poll (48 percent compared to 26 percent), even though he has been the party most unwilling to compromise.
Because Republicans are more likely to be blamed for any fiscal cliff fallout, the closer they get to the deadline the more pressure they’ll be under to make concessions. Which is why the White House is slow-walking negotiations, according to John Boehner:
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) accused the White House Friday of trying to “slow-walk” the “fiscal cliff” negotiations.
Boehner said there was “no progress” in the talks just three weeks before tax hikes and spending cuts are set to kick in, and expressed frustration that President Obama hasn’t made a counter-offer to the GOP’s proposal of $800 billion in new tax revenue as part of a $2.2 trillion deficit-reduction plan.
“This isn’t a progress report, because there’s no progress to report,” Boehner said in a brief press conference at the Capitol.
John reflected earlier on the possibility that as the next president of the Heritage Foundation, Jim DeMint might “stress the institution’s role in opposition, which is his stock in trade as a senator, and to downgrade its policy role.” Heritage’s decision to tap DeMint is less a sign that the pathbreaking think tank is setting off in a new direction than a sign it is pleased with the direction it has been taking the last couple of years.
In recent years, and especially over the last several months, Heritage has supplemented its traditional role as a major research institution by getting more involved in day-to-day political battles on Capitol Hill. Heritage Action for America was founded in 2010 by the Heritage Foundation’s board, and serves as a vehicle for Heritage to advance its policy message in a more directly political manner. Heritage, as a 501(c)(3), is unable to participate in direct lobbying; Heritage Action, a 501(c)(4), has fewer legal limitations.
In an attempt to rein in opposition to a potential compromise with Democrats , Speaker John Boehner is eliminating potential roadblocks on some key House committees. Yesterday two congressmen, Tim Huelskamp of Kansas and Justin Amash of Michigan, were removed from the agriculture and budget committees, respectively. Today both men spoke with the press and at the Heritage Foundation’s Blogger’s Briefing to discuss their removal. At Heritage Huelskamp told the crowd,
As has often been said, no good deed goes unpunished… We were not notified about what might occur. It confirms in my mind the deepest suspicions that most Americans [have] about Washington D.C. It’s petty, vindictive, and if you have any conservative principles you will be punished for articulating them. For the freshman class of two years ago we were only asked three things. You have to first help the Republican team in terms of fundraising. Frankly, I have done that. I think the other folks who have been punished have done that as well. In exchange for that, in exchange for notifying the leadership how you would vote, you will be able to vote your conscience and your district. I have done exactly that and so have most of my colleagues. It just so happens I have a conservative conscience and a conservative district. They are very thrilled with my votes and will confirm their deepest suspicions that it’s not about principles, it’s about blind obedience.
That recent CNN poll showing a majority of Americans would blame the GOP if the country goes over the fiscal cliff apparently wasn’t an outlier. A new Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll found similar results, The Fix reports:
While 53 percent of those surveyed say the GOP would (and should) lose the fiscal cliff blame game, just 27 percent say President Obama would be deserving of more of the blame. Roughly one in 10 (12 percent) volunteer that both sides would be equally to blame.
Those numbers are largely unchanged from a Post-Pew survey conducted three weeks ago and suggest that for all of the back and forth in Washington on the fiscal cliff, there has been little movement in public perception. The numbers also explain why Republicans privately fret about the political dangers of going over the cliff, while Democrats are more sanguine about such a prospect.