Does Speaker John A. Boehner really want a deal? Or is he confronting the reality that he cannot get any reasonable proposal through the House chamber controlled by his Republican Party?
After weeks of on-again, off-again negotiations aimed at avoiding the so-called fiscal cliff of big tax increases and spending cuts ready to kick in at year's end, it appeared significant progress had finally been made this week and a deal was in the offing. But as the nation witnessed with the collapse of the "grand bargain" deficit-reduction talks between Speaker Boehner and President Obama in July 2011, the speaker again won't take "yes" for an answer.
Early in these talks we chastised President Obama for putting his emphasis almost exclusively on allowing the Bush-era tax rate to expire on households making $250,000 or more, while allowing the lower rates to stand for other income brackets. The result would be a modest increase in the top tax rate from 35 percent to 39.6 percent.
President Obama pointed to his solid electoral victory that capped a campaign in which he emphasized his plan to raise the top tax rate to slow the growth of the deficit. He wanted the tax legislation passed before moving on to talk of cutting spending. That was an unreasonable expectation and, in retrospect, appeared to be an attempt to negotiate from strength.
Since then the president has moved his position considerably, arguably too much for a president who just won a second term. President Obama has reportedly agreed to raise the tax rate only on those making $400,000 and above. He agreed to keep the tax rate on dividend income at 20 percent, rather than move to 39.6 percent. All told, the concessions would reduce tax revenue increases from $1.6 trillion to $1.2 trillion over the next decade.
On the spending side President Obama agreed to $930 billion in spending cuts over 10 years, not far from the $1.2 trillion in cuts proposed by the GOP. To achieve that goal President Obama agreed to pursue a change very unpopular with many in his own party, moving to the so-called "chained" Consumer Price Index backed by the Republican leadership in the House and Senate. Using a new formula, it would effectively slow the growth of Social Security and other federal pension cost-of-living increases, while raising more money on the tax revenue side of the equation.
Having failed in their bid to win the White House and having lost ground in the Senate, and with public opinion polls showing strong support for the president's call for increasing the tax rate on the wealthy, one would think that Republicans would jump at this compromise. Instead on Tuesday Speaker Boehner moved the goal posts, rolling out some unrealistic "Plan B." It would move the tax rate increase to those making $1 million and more. And rather than make tough decisions on spending cuts now, it would simply suspend the fiscal-cliff spending cuts set for the end of the year and take the issue up in the new session.
In other words, Speaker Boehner suggests once again kicking the can down the proverbial road. Of course, he knows down that road would be the need to again raise the debt ceiling, which Republicans could again use as a ploy to demand the cuts they want - in social services, health and environmental programs - and avoid any shared pain in reduced defense spending.
We suspect that Speaker Boehner knows he got a good deal, probably more than he could have expected, but fears he cannot sell it to a House dominated by the tea-party class of 2010.
President Obama should not let him off the hook. He should let Speaker Boehner know this is indeed the best deal he is going to get. And if the nation tumbles off the fiscal cliff and into recession, it will be the Republican-controlled House to blame.
Faced with that reality, perhaps the speaker can summon up the votes to get a deal approved.