Is John Boehner just worried about his leadership position? Is he really putting his own re-election as Speaker of the House before all else?
Democrats are beginning to use this line of attack against Boehner, much to the delight of their base. If Boehner is seen as nothing more than self-serving in the fiscal cliff showdown, it's certainly not going to do either him or his party any good with the voting public. This won't immediately matter to Boehner (if the charge is true), because the election for the speakership doesn't involve the voters but rather the incoming House members.
Since nobody can see into the mind of Boehner but Boehner himself, it's kind of pointless to dwell on his inner motivations here. But it is worth taking a look at the options he has available to him, and consider whether any of these would help or hurt his chances of retaining control of his party in the House. Of course, this is all sheer speculation, and we're not even going to offer any odds, but here are Boehner's major possible routes out of the fiscal cliff discussions, in chronological order.
Cut a deal now; home for the holidays
This is not very likely, but Boehner and President Obama could agree on a plan in the next few days, and send it through the regular congressional process. This process normally takes about a week, so if this is going to happen, the news of it would break -- at the latest -- next Monday morning. But if the weekend ends without a plan, then there will likely be nothing done before Christmas. John Boehner has just warned Republicans not to make holiday plans, meaning Congress is going to have to work while everyone else is on holiday.
This sounds snide, and I suppose it is, but the one thing that both parties in Congress agree upon most is that they themselves absolutely require a full week (or two) off on vacation every single month. Harry Reid has used this leverage masterfully in the past four years or so, and there is always a possibility that Boehner and Obama will throw something together at the end of next week and votes will be held late on Christmas Eve. But it's not likely. If no plan emerges by Monday, then no plan will probably emerge until after Christmas.
Boehner wouldn't gain much from cutting a deal this early. The vacation schedule would be saved, but the Republican base will likely portray Boehner as not fighting hard enough for their issues, with weeks to build this resentment before the January 3rd vote for the speakership.
Cut a deal at the last minute; home for New Year's
The second point in the game that Boehner could relent will be the week between Christmas and New Year's. This will avoid the fiscal cliff, if the deal is passed and signed before the ball drops on New Year's Eve. Boehner can portray himself as fighting right up until the end, working right through Christmas even, but then having to get something done to avoid the impact of the fiscal cliff. He could sell this to his base -- "I fought as hard as I could, and I got the best deal possible!" -- especially since there will only be three days between the bill's passage and the speakership elections -- which probably isn't enough time to build a backlash against Boehner for whatever deal he cuts. This seems to be the heavy favorite among those betting on the outcome, at least at the moment.
Cut a deal in first three days of January
This option might indeed be attractive to Boehner. If he waits until after the cliff-jumping of the new year, then he can immediately pass either a "grand bargain" deal with Obama or just the bill that's already been approved by the Senate to lower income tax rates for 98 percent of American workers. By Republican logic, voting for this before the witching hour of the new year means "raising taxes" but voting for exactly the same thing right after the new year counts as "lowering taxes." This may sound silly, but the Republican base (and their high prophet Norquist) actually puts a lot of faith in such hair-splitting. If Boehner "goes over the cliff" but then immediately extends the Bush tax cuts for the 98 percent, he will be seen (by some, on the right) as "ideologically pure." If he moves fast enough, it will limit any impact on American workers' paychecks, although the media will certainly have a field day if we do go over the cliff.
Cut a deal right after he wins the gavel back
Holding a vote on whatever deal Boehner cuts will be done with the outgoing House if it happens any time before the third of January, but after this point the House members voting on any such deal will be the incoming House members. This could prove to be crucial.
Boehner may get stuck whipping votes in the old House. If enough of his outgoing membership blocks him, then he won't be able to pass anything -- even with Democratic votes -- and he won't be able to sell the deal. At some point, Boehner may decide he'll have better luck with the incoming class, in which case he will not cut a deal until after they are seated. Which, incidentally, means after they re-elect him Speaker of the House.
Awfully convenient, that.
Giving Boehner the benefit of the doubt, if his own members back him into this corner, then he's going to come out of it looking like the speakership vote was his primary concern all along. There won't be any plausible way for him to deny it, really. He'll be seen as a power-grasping Washington pol who put not just politics but his own career in front of getting something done before everyone's paychecks shrink.
If this is the route Boehner takes (whether forced or intentional), he's going to come out of it smelling not like a rose, but rather like rose fertilizer. The public is already ready to blame Republicans if we go over the fiscal cliff, and this will allow them to put a face on their blame in a very personal way. Boehner will emerge weaker, if this option plays out. Because Democrats will be out there making the case that Boehner is doing nothing but saving his own political skin, without a second thought to the consequences for anyone else in America.
Wait until the debt ceiling fight to cut any deal
Boehner could play hardball, however. He could decide that his own caucus is so bent on denying Obama a deal (any deal) that he just throws up his hands and says "OK, fine -- let's go over the cliff, and then we'll wait to have this fight again when we hit the debt ceiling." Republicans are convinced that they're going to have all the political leverage in a few months anyway, so why not just postpone the whole fight, and make their case stringently on Fox News (and wherever else will have them) that the whole thing was a plot for an "Obama tax hike" and that everything is Obama's fault, naturally.
This would be a gutsy game for Boehner to play. It would absolutely poison the atmosphere in Washington not only for the next two months, but for the next two years. The outcome to such scorched-earth tactics is anyone's guess, really, but it has to be seen at this point as a pretty low probability. Personally, I think Boehner will be moved to act before it gets to this point, by public outcry if by nothing else.
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