House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is bracing Americans for the possibility that Washington fails to avert the so-called fiscal cliff in time, with less than a month to go.
On “Fox News Sunday,” the speaker repeatedly affirmed his commitment to preventing the mix of massive tax hikes and indiscriminate spending cuts from taking effect. But he spoke with unmistakable fatalism about the prospect that the two parties will secure a deal to do so in the final month.
“There is clearly a chance,” Boehner said, that no deal is struck before Jan. 1.
He scoffed at President Obama’s opening bid of $1.6 trillion in new tax revenues alongside entitlement cuts and new stimulus spending, calling it “a non-serious proposal.” The speaker, who hasn’t proposed a counter-offer, said he was “flabbergasted” by it.
“We’re nowhere, period,” he said. “We’re nowhere.”
The remarks reflect a stalemate over increasing tax rates for the highest earners. In recent weeks, Republicans have proclaimed a willingness to raise revenue by limiting tax expenditures and loopholes but refuse to give an inch on raising rates. Obama, having handily won re-election on a plan that includes no middle class tax increases and a mix of spending cuts, is determined to let top rates return to Clinton-era levels.
A separate dilemma for Republicans is that they want to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security but, conscious that such cuts would be unpopular, want Obama to propose them. Democrats reject this invitation and want Republicans to name their demands.
And that’s fueling Boehner’s pessimism. On Fox, he tiptoed around the idea of raising the Medicare eligibility age and limiting the rate at which Social Security benefits grow, saying those policies are “on the table” but stopping short of championing them and instead called on Obama to specify what he’s “willing to do.” That’s deepening the stalemate.
If the federal government does go over the fiscal cliff, the worst economic effects will not be immediate given that the tax hikes and spending cuts would materialize slowly. It might also give Republicans political cover of a sort. Obama is expected to propose and Democrats to quickly pass legislation to restore the Bush tax cuts for incomes below $250,000. Republicans would be hard-pressed not to support that legislation. Under that scenario, Republicans would have avoided voting affirmatively for any tax increases.
Tim Geithner, speaking for the White House on “Fox News Sunday,” said that one way or another Republicans will be forced to accede to higher tax rates for the rich.
“We can’t afford the tax rates,” he said. “So we’re not going to get through it — we’re not going to get to the end now without a recognition of the Republicans to that basic reality. … And my judgment is, they’re going to do it because there’s no alternative to that.”
But admitting that would be political suicide for Boehner and his speakership. And his party lacks the leverage to force any other outcome. So he’s left with few other options than to express his disappointment with the White House.
“I don’t know what they are thinking,” Boehner said. “I think — they’ve won the election. They must have forgotten Republicans continue to hold a majority in the House. But, you know, the president’s idea of a negotiation is: roll over and do what I ask. We need to find common ground and we need to find it quickly.”
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.