Boehner Navigates Tight Squeeze on Debt Issue

Monday, 11 Jul 2011 12:19 PM

By Dan Weil

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House Speaker John Boehner probably has as much political savvy as anyone who has occupied the position in at least 50 years. But the debt limit/budget negotiations are so politically difficult that even he is having trouble guiding Republican policy.

Last week, the 20-year congressional veteran from Ohio engaged in negotiations with President Barack Obama on a plan to lop $4 trillion off the budget deficit over the next 10 years.

“It was a transformative proposal, with the potential to improve the ugly deficit picture by shrinking the size of government, overhauling the tax John Boehner, Barack Obama, Debt Limitcode and instituting consensus changes to shore up Medicare and even Social Security,” Carl Hulse writes in The New York Times. “It was a once-in-a-decade opening.”

But Boehner didn’t have the support of rank-and-file Republicans on the issue – particularly tea party conservatives. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor represented key opposition to the grand bargain Boehner and Obama sought, arguing the plan created unacceptable tax increases. And Cantor obviously has the support of conservatives in the House.

Boehner and the White House had worked to finesse the tax issue so that the plan could be presented as not raising taxes – even though it entailed about $1 trillion in new revenue. Boehner stressed that the plan would generate increased revenue through economic growth, expanding the tax base. And he was working for a legislative trigger as a safeguard against certain tax increases.

But it wasn’t enough, and on Saturday Boehner was forced to pull the plug on the grand bargain and return to what Cantor sought – about $2 trillion in spending cuts. “As Eric has said for weeks, tax increases that the Democrats are insisting upon cannot pass the House and are the last thing Congress should be doing,” Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for Cantor, told the Times.

So Boehner was caught between his valiant wish for a grand bargain, the strong opposition of the tea party movement and mixed feelings among other House GOP leaders.

“Even opening the door to increased revenues as part of a deal with Mr. Obama and the Democrats struck may Republicans as a profound misreading of what conservatives, in Congress and at the grass-roots level, would tolerate,” Hulse wrote.

And Boehner also may have underestimated the president’s own ability/willingness to make concessions on entitlements.

Some pundits view the developments in strong terms. Boehner’s decision to pull back “is the starkest demonstration yet of the limits of the Ohio Republican’s power,” Politico wrote.

“The internal GOP backlash against his efforts to secure a package of $4 trillion in spending cuts and revenue-raisers revealed that Boehner sometimes is little more than the first among equals — capable of synthesizing Republican sentiments but unwilling to drive them.”

That may be overstating it. Boehner’s political skills are immense, and how all this plays out remains to be seen. He and Obama clearly have cultivated a strong working relationship and may yet get a grand deal done.

President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev overcame arguably much larger political obstacles on arms-control agreements in the late 1980s. Often where there’s a will, there’s a way.

But for now conservative opposition to tax increases rules the roost. “It’s crazy to think the speaker was considering a trillion [dollars] in tax increases,” one veteran Republican lawmaker close to leadership told Politico.

“After all, we’re the anti-tax party. Cantor brought him, the economy and our party back from the abyss. Cantor is strengthened, clearly. And it’s another example of the speaker almost slipping beyond the will of the GOP conference.”

Boehner wasn’t done any favor by leaks of the deal with Obama before House members were briefed on negotiations. “That was a huge problem,” a top House Republican aide told Politico. “Boehner got way out in front of where he should have been. He pulled back because he had to do so.”

Now the question for many is whether Cantor has usurped any of Boehner’s leadership authority. No, say some Republicans. “They’re in the same place now,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the No. 3 Republican in the House as majority whip, told Politico.

Cantor made the same point. “I think we’re in exactly the same place. We are and we have been,” he told Politico. “He’s never said he’s for tax increases. And the White House just proved that in order to do what it was that we want to do to restructure the entitlement picture in terms of the fiscal soundness, they need tax rate increases and we’re not for that.”

Others see it differently. One House Republican told Politico Cantor’s move to oppose the grand deal was “too cute,” and another said there’s “mixed opinion on Cantor.” Boehner and Cantor have never been close.

Some pundits see Cantor with the upper hand now. “Eric Cantor is the real power in the House of Representatives,” Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the left-leaning Brookings Institution wrote on Politico. “The weekend talks show how potent the tax issue remains among conservatives.”

Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to six Republican and Democratic secretaries of state and now a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says both Democrats and Republicans must be willing to settle for a realistic solution that will fall short of both parties’ desires.

“Politics is about what people want; governance is about what they get,” he wrote on Politico.

“Negotiating in this climate between Republicans and Democrats -- who have turned the debt/tax/entitlements issue into a struggle between the forces of good vs. evil -- was never about a big transformative bargain; that wasn’t possible. It was and is about a smaller transaction – cutting a short-term deal on the debt ceiling that won’t push either constituency further than it’s prepared to go.”

Reinhold Niebuhr had the solution for this one, Miller says. Paraphrasing the influential 20th century political commentator, Miller wrote, “In a democracy, the best you’re going to get is proximate solutions to insoluble problems. Let’s get on with this one.”

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