WASHINGTON -- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gave a bit of cover to the man currently occupying that post, offering Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) a way to sell his caucus on a fiscal cliff deal that allows tax rates to rise.
In an interview with The Huffington Post on Wednesday morning, Gingrich argued that Boehner's latest proposal to allow rates to rise on income above $1 million didn't technically constitute a violation of the oft-taken Republican pledge not to raise taxes. Moreover, he added, allowing tax rates to go up on incomes -- even those below $1 million -- wouldn't create the type of economic misery that many conservatives in the party have insistently predicted.
"My assumption is that they will eventually stumble to a tax increase because the president of the United States is going to veto anything that doesn't [increase taxes]. And by the way, House Republicans don't have to vote for a tax increase. All they have to do is vote for a tax cut below a certain number, and they are not voting for taxes to go up," said the former speaker.
"If you don't vote for tax increases, you didn't vote for a tax increase," Gingrich added, noting that if Congress takes no action at all, tax rates will rise for everyone. "In the end, it is not about [anti-tax advocate] Grover [Norquist]'s pledge. It is about whether you can go back home and explain it to the people back home. Grover doesn't matter, the voters back home do. Grover just captured an idea that works for the people back home."
Shifting his focus to the larger debate over spending cuts, entitlement reform and revenue raisers, Gingrich called the current showdown between Boehner and President Barack Obama "the theater of the absurd."
There is no such thing as a fiscal cliff, he stressed. "It is actually more like a bunny slope ... The impact will be some pain to a lot of people. But in fact we survived the '90s paying Clinton-level taxes. I'm just saying. So this is not like we are going to go off a cliff. Will some people be hit hard? Yes. Will some defense contractors be hit hard? Yes."
Such remarks go against the grain of thinking of more conservative members of the House Republican caucus. And as the House prepares to vote on "Plan B," Gingrich's observations could provide Boehner with leverage within his own party.
On Tuesday, Boehner began abruptly pushing for a quick resolution to the expiring Bush tax cuts, while leaving the sequestration-related $1 trillion in spending cuts unaddressed. On Wednesday, anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist offered his support of the plan. Two other prominent conservative groups, the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, both urged no votes, however.
At issue is not just the question of whether Republicans should vote for a plan that would raise tax rates on millionaires, but as to what broader political strategy they want to employ to address spending cuts and entitlement reforms after the tax issue has been settled. House aides argue that they are prepared to deal with those issues once they're no longer being accused of holding onto tax cuts for the rich. Top Obama administration officials on Wednesday morning said they wouldn't negotiate off of Boehner's Plan B proposal.
Gingrich proposed a third path. He told Boehner to delay any vote by passing legislation to defer the tax hikes and spending cuts another three months. That would give Republicans more time to frame the debate in more favorable terms. Boehner, he argued, could hold immediate hearings on government spending, he could refuse to pass appropriations bills, and could promise a "wave of oversight hearings on waste, fraud and corruption" -- all with an eye toward shifting public opinion.
"He has a very hard hand to play," Gingrich said of Boehner. "And my only advice when you have a very hard hand to play is to play it slowly. Speed is not his friend. Speed is Obama's friend. Obama can dominate the media. Obama can have the press conference, Obama can have his staff leak, Obama can send out his press secretary."
"The president is Gulliver," he added. "The Congress is Lilliput. If enough Lilliputians take on Gulliver, they can tie him down. You have to think about the totality of the House. It has five strengths: appropriations, oversight, legislation, communication by all of its members -- not just the speaker -- and negotiation. Negotiation is the weakest of the five. And they are not using the first four."