House Speaker John Boehner said on Tuesday that Republicans and Democrats haven’t really changed their “fiscal cliff” positions since the election but emphasized that “I’m a willing partner to try to find a way to avoid this disaster” nonetheless.
“Generally, yes,” said Boehner, when pressed by National Journal Daily about whether he thinks neither side has really budged. Democrats still want higher taxes on the rich as part of any deal, and that position is still anathema to the GOP.
“But I think that there is understanding that we’ve got to find some way to find common ground to resolve this,” the Ohio Republican added. “And, you know, I’m trying to make sure that our team understands where we’re going, and we don’t do anything to preclude any kind of options from either side.”
But finding any such “team” understanding within a divided House Republican Conference remains a major hurdle for Boehner. In offering to partner with Democrats to resolve the crisis, Boehner must contend not only with the demands of President Obama and congressional Democrats, but also with deep-seeded conservative opposition to raising taxes at all. That could undercut any personal determination to forge a compromise. Speaking with his Republican colleagues last week, Boehner sought to emphasize GOP unity, imploring, “When we’re unified, we’re at our strongest. Divided we fail.”
The fiscal cliff has become ubiquitous shorthand for the scheduled year-end expiration of the President George W. Bush-era tax cuts, as well as other tax cuts and extenders, and the triggering of billions of dollars in across-the-board spending cuts early next year that could wreak havoc on the economy.
On another sticky issue—immigration reform—Boehner said, “Well, obviously we’ve got to deal with the fiscal cliff and the looming increase to the debt limit, but the conversation needs to begin, and sometime next year I think this issue ought to be resolved.”
Immediately after Obama was reelected and Democrats gained seats in both the Senate and House, Boehner seemed more conciliatory in calling for Obama to lead Democrats and Republicans to a resolution of the crisis. Many took his speech to mean there was a softening in the GOP’s hard-line antitax tone.
Boehner has since clarified: Republicans will consider changes that may lead to new revenues but are staunchly opposed to any increase in tax rates.
“You’re never happy about losing seats,” Boehner said on Tuesday. But “I think we retained our majority because we listened; and we focused on America’s top concerns, which are jobs and the economy.” Although Republicans are assuming the same starting position regarding tax hikes as before the election, “[I] just always believed that revenues were going to have to be part of the solution.
“But only if the president is serious about real reform of the entitlement program,” he added. “You can’t put more revenues on the table unless we do something about controlling our spending, and right now it’s out of control.”
Last week, Obama said he views his reelection as an endorsement of his call for wealthy Americans to pay more in taxes. However, the president never specifically said that he wants to raise tax rates on the rich, only that he wants added revenues generated through taxes on the wealthy, which Boehner said he found heartening.
“Yeah, I heard what he had to say,” Boehner said. “And I’ve kept the door open for trying to find some common ground, which is the real key here.”
But the speaker also said that he doesn’t view raising taxes on dividends and capital gains rather than income as a potential avenue for a solution.
“Remember, the biggest issue is the economy, and I don’t see where that helps our economy and helps create jobs,” he said.
Boehner also noted that the federal government will lose its ability to borrow early next year, a development that could prompt yet another battle over raising the nation’s debt limit.
He reiterated that his “goal” is to resolve this fiscal-cliff dilemma, and deal with the looming debt crisis as well. But he also said he has made his position “pretty clear that any increase to the debt ceiling needs to be accompanied by cuts and reforms that are greater than the increase.”
Asked how hopeful he is about reaching a bipartisan deal going into Friday’s White House meeting of Obama and congressional leaders, or at least making some progress, Boehner said: “We’ll see what the meeting looks like and see what comes out of it; but, you know, hope springs eternal.”
Reid Wilson contributed
This article appears in the Nov. 14, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.