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Boehner being pushed dangerously near fiscal cliff

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Updated: January 17, 2013 6:29AM



To hear House Speaker John Boehner tell it, President Obama is a veritable Stephen Colbert.

“It’s clear the president’s just not serious,” Boehner said at his weekly news conference in the House TV studio Thursday. “The White House is so unserious. Here we are, at the 11th hour, and the president still isn’t serious.”

Boehner is right — seriously. The administration hasn’t been treating the fiscal-cliff talks as a substantial negotiation, and for one very good reason: It’s not clear they have anyone to negotiate with.

At the White House and on Capitol Hill, a fear is growing that Boehner cannot negotiate a successful deal because if he strikes the kind of compromise needed to solve the fiscal standoff, he may lose support of his House GOP caucus, and possibly his job as speaker.

“Mr. Speaker,” PBS’ Linda Scott asked him after his accusations that Obama is unserious, “could you describe how difficult it is to craft a deal that your conference will support while not jeopardizing your job as speaker?”

“I’m not concerned about my job as speaker,” Boehner said.

Seriously? Herein lies the danger in the fiscal-cliff negotiations, and the reason why a deal may have to wait until after Jan. 1. In negotiating with Boehner, the White House is up against what might be called an irrational-actor problem. He surely wants a deal, but as the titular leader of House Republicans, he is at the mercy of backbenchers who have a fanatical opposition to tax increases.

A top negotiator for the administration said privately last week that he expects the government to go over the fiscal cliff, because the ensuing panic may be the only thing that will allow Boehner to gain the leverage he needs in his Lord-of-the-Flies caucus. But that notion — risking recession to increase Boehner’s bargaining position within his own caucus — is the riskiest of gambles.

Neither side has made much of a substantial offer to avoid the cliff. The White House has avoided major concessions because officials know they have the winning political hand: Republicans will likely be blamed for the disaster. And Boehner has avoided most specifics because his offer would be picked apart by many on his own side. Though Republicans have essentially conceded that taxes on the wealthy will rise, they haven’t agreed how.

Congressional Democrats are contributing to negotiations largely by taunting Boehner’s weakness.

“The obvious question (Americans) are asking and we’re asking is, ‘What is John Boehner waiting for?’  ” said Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat. “Is he waiting for Jan. 3, his election as speaker? I hope it’s not that.”

Boehner, trying to keep the focus on Obama, showed up Thursday with a new visual aid: a multicolor chart, courtesy of Paul Ryan, and a Twitter hashtag #spendingistheproblem.

Boehner beckoned to his handsome graphic: “The president still isn’t serious about dealing with this issue right here,” he said, with a gesture toward the chart’s climbing blob of red that represented future government spending.

In this case, though, there is a simple way out: Boehner can agree to the White House demand to increase taxes on the top 2 percent of earners, then work out a second deal on spending and tax reform. Obama still would be under pressure to negotiate because the tax increase on the wealthy wouldn’t do much to improve revenues. But allowing that vote could cause a mutiny among House Republicans.

Andy Taylor of the Associated Press asked if he’d allow such a vote. Boehner offered his standard demurral: If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, “every day would be Christmas. I know, it’s going to be here real soon.”

And so is Boehner’s day of reckoning.

Dana Milbank is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.



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