Why Boehner’s hands are tied

"Washington gridlock" isn't the reason for the endless fiscal cliff negotiations. The House Speaker's weakness is

Topics: Opening Shot, John Boehner, Barack Obama, Fiscal cliff,

A popular theory holds that the fiscal cliff/slope/curb negotiations are destined to drag on to the end of December because that’s just how things work in dysfunctional Washington. But that’s not the right way to understand the current standoff.

Yes, it’s true, negotiations are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, and the possibility that December 31 will come and go without a deal is real. But it’s not generic Washington gridlock that’s causing this: It’s the almost impossible balancing act that the leader of one of the parties faces.

Consider the events of the past few days. Late last week, the White House outlined its opening offer to Republicans: $1.6 trillion in new revenue, a commitment to extract $400 billion in savings from Medicare, an extension of the payroll tax cut and federal unemployment insurance, and an end to debt ceiling brinkmanship. House Speaker John Boehner responded by saying the blueprint wasn’t “serious” and pronouncing himself “flabbergasted.” Then on Monday Boehner outlined his counteroffer, a less detailed call for $800 billion in new revenue through “tax reform” and over a $1 trillion in cuts in entitlement and discretionary spending. The White House, which has said raising rates on high-income earners is a bottom-line demand, declared that Boehner’s plan “does not meet the test of balance.”

This is all fairly typical of the early stages of any negotiation – although, as E.J. Dionne pointed out Monday, it is noteworthy that Obama, who spent the first few years granting preemptive concessions in his dealing with the GOP, is now applying the normal principles of negotiating. More telling, though, is what happened after Boehner released his framework: Restive sounds began building on the right. As Politico’s Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan reported, Heritage Action blasted Boehner’s blueprint as a capitulation, and some conservative bloggers joined in too. Further complicating matters for the Speaker was his move Monday to deny choice committee slots to three Tea Party purists who’d been thorns in his side – an action that propted further outcry from the right.

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As Sherman and Bresnahan pointed out, Boehner has so far managed to keep the bulk of conservative activists and media voices on his side in the negotiations. Of course, before Monday, he really hadn’t done anything besides embrace the concept of finding new revenue (but not through increased tax rates – putting him in line with the platform Mitt Romney just ran on) and attack Obama for failing to lead. But now that he’s made a move, even one mostly devoid of real substance, he’s starting to hear grumbling on his right flank.

This is the real reason the negotiations seem destined to drag on to the end of this month. Let’s say that Boehner, who showed a genuinely pragmatic streak for a big chunk of his congressional career, can read the writing on the wall. He recognizes that Obama holds the upper hand, that all of the Bush rates will expire if no action is taken before January 1, and that Republicans would then be under enormous pressure to give in immediately on a plan to spare the middle class. Let’s say Boehner gets this, and knows that any deal he cuts with the White House is going to have to include some kind of tax rate increase on the wealthy. Even if Boehner grasps these realities, there’s no way he can say it now – not with so much time left on the clock.

The problem, as we’ve seen since he claimed the Speaker’s gavel, is that Boehner has unusually little pull with his own members. He was next in line when the 2010 tidal wave carried Republicans back to majority status in the House, but dozens of his fellow Republicans – not to mention the conservative activists, interest groups leaders and media personalities whom Republican members of Congress take their cues from – doubted his ideological purity. From the beginning of his speakership, the threat of a mutiny hovered over every dealing Boehner had with Obama, which is why, for instance, he had to pull back from his “grand bargain” talks with the president last year.

If there’s going to be a deal before January 1, it will violate what has been one of the conservative movement’s most sacred precepts: Never raise taxes – ever. Because of who he is, Boehner is poorly positioned to lead Republicans toward the kind of compromise that Obama is demanding (and has the leverage to back up). Which doesn’t mean Republicans can’t get there. But they’ll only get there if Boehner and all of their other leaders put on a show for the first few weeks of December, bemoaning how “unserious” Obama is and fighting his tax hike demand. Then, as public pressure builds, influential conservative voices might begin weighing in, advising the GOP that maybe it’s time to cut a deal. Only then will Boehner have the cover he needs to strike a deal that will pass Obama’s test without sparking a full-scale conservative rebellion.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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