CQ TODAY ONLINE NEWS
Updated July 24, 2011 – 5:55 p.m.
For Boehner, Central Role Comes With Risks
By Richard E. Cohen, CQ Staff
Although a Democrat occupies the White House and a Democratic majority runs the Senate, the Republican Speaker of the House has been able to largely dictate the terms for increasing the debt limit.
Mostly by virtue of being the most powerful Republican officeholder in Washington,
As the Speaker’s efforts to negotiate a “grand bargain” with President Obama have gained momentum and then collapsed — not once but twice — Boehner’s public standing has shifted back and forth from compromiser to conservative hard-liner.
After breaking off his most recent talks with Obama on July 22, Boehner said he hoped to be able to announce a bipartisan agreement among congressional leaders that would thread a needle and allow passage of legislation to head off a government default while reducing the deficit enough to mollify conservatives in his own party.
But by early Sunday evening, there was little sign of bipartisan or bicameral progress, and Boehner appeared to be leaning toward a new GOP debt limit package that could be sent to the floor this week. Such a move would put the ball in the court of Obama and the Democrats with the Treasury’s Aug. 2 default deadline approaching.
A bipartisan breakthrough would have been a welcome relief for Boehner, whose role in the debt limit debate has put him in a political vise.
The Ohio Republican is under unrelenting pressure from conservatives to use a debt limit increase as an opportunity to reduce the cost and size of the federal government. But Obama and congressional Democratic leaders insist that revenue increases be part of any package that cuts domestic programs. And the Democrats portray Boehner as risking the nation’s economy by being unwilling to strike a deal, even when offered generous terms.
Both Boehner and Obama have said they want a package including a debt ceiling increase large enough to carry the government through 2012, along with significant deficit reduction measures. Conservative Republicans also want Congress to send to the states a proposed constitutional amendment that would cap federal spending at a reduced level and make it very difficult for Congress to increase taxes.
A self-styled dealmaker, Boehner has supported all of those goals. He has publicly backed the conservatives’ “cut, cap and balance” legislation. But as the man in the middle of any eventual debt limit deal, it is unlikely Boehner will escape without making some people in his own party unhappy.
As was the case in the more tightly focused bargaining earlier this year on fiscal 2011 appropriations, the Speaker’s hands-on role in recent weeks has been substantive as well as tactical. He has demanded 10-year spending cuts greater than the amount of any immediate debt limit increase. He wants a tax code overhaul that does not increase rates and is especially responsive to the interests of small businesses like the Ohio packaging-products company that he once owned.
Unable to get the deal from Obama he wanted, Boehner walked away from the latest round of negotiations with the president, declaring that he and other congressional leaders would figure out a solution on their own. Obama denounced Boehner for refusing to accept what the president said would have been a reasonable compromise.
“Essentially, what we had offered Speaker Boehner was over a trillion dollars in cuts to discretionary spending, both domestic and defense,” Obama said during a news conference July 22. “It is hard to understand why Boehner would have walked away from this deal.”
The accusations have flown in both directions. Boehner repeatedly has accused Obama of failing to provide presidential leadership on deficit reduction. And throughout the debate, Boehner’s aides have churned out statements defending the Speaker’s actions and criticizing the president. After the blowup last week, Boehner’s two senior aides at the center of the negotiations, Chief of Staff Barry Jackson and Chief Policy Adviser Brett Loper, provided a 30-minute briefing for reporters on the Speaker’s version of events.
For Boehner, Central Role Comes With Risks
Boehner’s aggressive approach on the debt limit is no surprise to those who have watched him closely. In leading last year’s GOP campaign to win control of the House, he emphasized the need for Congress to control spending. The party’s “Pledge to America” called for huge budget cuts, and in a September speech Boehner attacked a Washington culture “that facilitates spending increases and discourages spending cuts.”
But serving as the focal point of the debt limit negotiations has put Boehner in a national spotlight unlike any he has worked in previously, and has made him a lightning rod for bolts from both the left and right.
“Speaker Boehner’s ‘adult moment’ is long overdue,” House Minority Leader
“It is absolutely stunning to see House Republicans walking away from the negotiating table for a third time at a critical moment for our country’s economy and finances,” said
Although House Republicans have publicly rallied behind him in recent days,Boehner has effectively been put on notice by GOP conservatives. Calling for rejection of Boehner’s quest for a “grand bargain” with Democrats, House Republican Study Committee Chairman
“Gimmicks, commissions, kicking the can down the road — we will oppose all of those things,” Jordan told National Review. “To accomplish anything of significance or meaning, it’s always hard, never easy. But those are the moments that matter.”
Jordan, who has not been afraid to take on Boehner, also opposed as inadequate the final agreement in April on fiscal 2011 spending.
Knowing that Boehner may have his hands full winning the support of his own House majority for a debt limit package, Senate leaders have generally let the Speaker take the lead.
Reid and Senate Minority Leader
The Speaker’s role will become even more dicey as the debt ceiling deadline approaches. He must try to bridge fundamental differences with the opposition party while keeping the faith of his own conference.
Having free rein from his leadership colleagues could be as much a way for Boehner to get into trouble — perhaps even becoming a political victim of the standoff — as it is an opportunity for him to score a landmark achievement.
First posted July 23, 2011 8:19 p.m.