If the grand bargain were “real,” Roskam said, and included authentic reductions in long-term federal spending on entitlements, then things “could get really interesting and paradigm-shifting.”
Boehner and his aides considered themselves realists. The negotiations would be arduous. And the election would doubtless bolster Obama’s confidence and conviction. But “the president has a choice to make,” one of the speaker’s aides said in November. “If the president wants a productive second term, it’s not in his own interests to make the lame duck toxic. Not when he needs to get something accomplished on the economy and the debt for his legacy, not when he needs help from Congress to raise the debt limit soon, and not when he will need to ask House Republican leaders for help in shepherding through the House potential compromises on issues he wants to address over the next four years, like immigration.”
Obama held no such opinions. The White House viewed with cynicism the gauzy Republican promises to act more cooperatively on immigration, the debt ceiling, and other onerous issues if the president gave ground on taxes. Obama had become conditioned -- after two years of experiencing little else -- to expect unswerving conservative opposition to anything bearing his name.
The president was a gracious host when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Boehner, McConnell, and Pelosi trooped down to the White House on Friday, Nov. 16, even giving Boehner a bottle of red wine for his birthday. They agreed on a two-step process, with both immediate action on the most pressing issues and a long-term solution to be worked on in 2013 and agreed that cuts in spending were a necessary part of the way forward.
But the lack of specifics troubled the speaker. It had taken nine days to stage the meeting: Was Obama taking a slow walk through the calendar to get more leverage at the end of the year?
Toward the end of the meeting, Obama said, “By the way, I’m not going to sign anything that doesn’t have a debt limit increase in it.”
“Well, Mr. President, everything you want in life comes with a price,” the speaker replied. Obama did not look thrilled.
The speaker’s team fell prey to overconfidence. They just didn’t believe that Obama meant what he said about raising tax rates for the wealthy.
“That he has to have increases in the top two rates come hell or high water was the president’s campaign position,” one of Boehner’s aides said shortly after the election. “That’s not necessarily his governing position.”
Obama would not take the country off the cliff over the issue of higher rates if he got a promise of additional revenue via tax reform, the aide predicted. “I don’t think it comes to that.”
Yet when Boehner’s aides started haggling with their counterparts at the White House in the days before Thanksgiving, they ran into a wall. There would be no deal without higher tax rates on the wealthy and an extension of the debt limit, the president’s aides said. Take it or leave it. The president was willing to dive off the cliff.
Reid was not surprised. He had met with Obama, privately, without staff, on the afternoon of Tuesday, Nov. 13. The president had assured him that he was not bluffing and would insist on a hike in rates.
In meetings with American business leaders at the White House and at a series of campaign-style trips, Obama turned up the heat. He took to Twitter to encourage people to express themselves about the upcoming tax hikes, using the hashtag #My2k. He upped the ante even further by visiting a Virginia high school teacher and her family to talk middle-class tax breaks.
If the Bush tax cuts were allowed to lapse, it would cost the average family $2,200, the White House announced – all because the House Republicans were protecting their rich pals.
Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, appeared at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and took a hard line, announcing that major cuts in entitlement programs were now off the table. Labor unions such as the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union also felt emboldened by the outcome of the election and the political capital they had exerted to help elect the president in swing states like Ohio; in turn, they demanded that the president stick to his campaign promise of raising taxes, while also preserving Medicare and other benefit programs.
Republicans felt the pressure, and their bloc began to crumble. At a meeting of the House Republican whips, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a former member of the House leadership with a 96 percent rating from the American Conservative Union, advised his colleagues to concede that the president held the stronger hand. He urged them to vote for the middle-class tax cuts, which they would no doubt support in the 113th Congress anyway.
The Republican commentariat was divided. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial writers, conservative radio talk-show hosts, and Fox News personalities such as Sean Hannity scorned Boehner’s fears about plunging off the cliff. Others, such as columnist Ann Coulter and editor William Kristol of The Weekly Standard, questioned why – as Kristol put it – the party should take a beating on behalf of a small contingent of the uber-wealthy, many of whom were liberals and never vote Republican anyway.
Boehner shared Kristol’s fears. At the weekly meeting of the House Republicans on Wednesday, Nov. 28, the speaker stressed the need for unity, and he urged his members to hang tough. But he was worried, and he called the White House that night, longing for some sign of compromise.