New York Times
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Dec 13, 2012
WASHINGTON — Speaker John Boehner moved Wednesday to maintain Republican unity on deficit reduction talks as lawmakers on the far-right openly chafed at his leadership and some pragmatists pressed for quick accommodation on tax rate increases on the rich.
Other lawmakers and aides to the speaker maintained that Republicans, both in the leadership and in the broader Republican conference, remain strongly unified behind Boehner as he tries to reach a deal with President Barack Obama to stave off a potential fiscal crisis less than three weeks away.
Without a deal, hundreds of billions of dollars in automatic tax increases and spending cuts will kick in next month, possibly dragging the nation back into recession.
But the House's most conservative members vowed to vote against any deal that raises taxes, openly challenging the speaker's authority. Rep. Jeff Landry of Louisiana, defeated in a House race decided last week, blamed the speaker for creating the perilous fiscal position the nation finds itself in. A senior Democrat suggested that Boehner was dragging his feet on deficit talks to avoid striking a deal before January, when the House formally chooses its next speaker.
"The biggest impediment right now is the speaker's ability to get a decent number of Republican votes for an agreement," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who is the lead Democrat on the House Budget Committee.
"I'm getting increasingly concerned that one of the reasons the speaker is deciding to, I think, string out these discussions is that he wants to wait until Jan. 3, when the election for speaker takes place," he said.
The Republican dissenters at this point represent a small portion of the House Republican Conference, but their public anger is striking. It also reflects a storm of criticism Boehner is facing on conservative talk radio and Internet outlets, in part for moving toward the president on taxes, in part for embracing a purge that removed four Republicans who consistently dissented from leadership positions of committees.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., who was removed from the Agriculture Committee, said the vast majority of his district wants him to oppose Boehner's re-election as speaker.
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., another subject of the committee purge, said, "If Speaker Boehner wants to come back to my district, he's not going to be met with very much welcome."
In another twist, some of the House's most uncompromising conservatives joined ranks with its most ardent liberals in embracing a ride into the fiscal unknown next month. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said the across-the-board spending cuts to military and domestic programs would "break the mold and get some real cuts for a change."
Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis, R-Wyo., compared fears of a fiscal crisis to hysteria over the end of the Mayan calendar later this month.
"A bad deal is worse than no deal at all," she said. "What is being made of this fiscal cliff is too much."
Republican leadership aides dismissed such talk as the incessant grumbling of a group that has made dissent a sport. Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, called Van Hollen's assertion "nutty."
Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said, "The speaker's got us very unified."
With his bargaining position already tenuous, Boehner needs a unified party behind him if he is to hold out for a conservative deficit deal, leaders told the Republican conference Wednesday morning. Concern on his right flank may be keeping him from moving toward a deal. The latest counterproposal from the speaker to the president Tuesday did not move an inch off his position of $800 billion in revenue increases over 10 years, achieved through an overhaul of the tax code without tax rate increases.
Even before conservatives started speaking out of turn, pragmatists were pressing the leadership to take up and pass a Senate Democratic bill to extend expiring middle-class tax cuts, which would most likely ensure that tax rates would rise on the rich.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., went to the Senate floor Tuesday night to say his party should accept tax rate increases on the top 2 percent of households now, then battle Obama on spending early next year when Congress must raise the government's statutory borrowing limit or risk a debilitating government debt default.
Republicans could also use as leverage the expiration in March of the "continuing resolution" — or CR — that is keeping the government operating.
"Where we may be headed is toward the end of this month rescuing the 98 percent, putting that issueover to theside and then using the debt ceiling or the CR as that forcing moment to cause us to finally come to terms with this fiscal issue," Corker said.
Meeting with Republican House members, the speaker expressed frustration with the president's position, and suggested that lawmakers prepare for a spoiled holiday season. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., emerged from the weekly meeting of the House Republican Conference to say the speaker's message was "keep your Christmas decorations up and make no plans."
Boehner on Wednesday described a "deliberate" conversation he had with Obama on Tuesday night that dwelled on the distance the two must still travel to find accord.
"Listen, I was born with a glass half-full," he told reporters. "I remain the most optimistic person in this town, but we've got some serious differences."
He added, "There were some offers that were exchanged back and forth yesterday and the president and I had a pretty frank conversation about just how far apart we are."
Democrats, eager to exploit cracks in the Republican ranks, dared the speaker Wednesday to bring up the Senate-passed middle-class tax cut extension using expedited rules that would take a two-thirds vote to pass.