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October 20, 2014

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Cliff or no cliff: Who stands to gain in court of public opinion?

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Carolyn Kaster / AP

President Barack Obama acknowledges House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio while speaking to reporters in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, as he hosted a meeting of the bipartisan, bicameral leadership of Congress to discuss the deficit and economy.

House Speaker John Boehner’s admission Thursday night that he couldn’t pull together enough votes to pass his “Plan B,” and his subsequent dismissal of the House until after Christmas, means there are now only three ways this whole fiscal cliff fiasco could go down.

• President Barack Obama and Sen. Harry Reid could successfully insist the House hold a vote on their bill to raise tax rates on incomes above $250,000, and hope Boehner can persuade a few dozen Republicans to vote yes alongside Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats.

• Obama could tweak and resubmit his fiscal cliff offer to Boehner, in the hopes of bringing a slightly more even-handed coalition of House Republicans and Democrats together.

• Or we could just go over this cliff.

However it turns out, though, one thing seems certain: After Boehner’s swing and a miss with the House Thursday night, Reid’s comparative political stock stands to rise.

“Everybody’s talked about Boehner and Obama cutting this deal, but Harry Reid’s the third man,” said Eric Herzik, a UNR political scientist. “And Reid’s advantage is, he can deliver votes.”

Reid and Boehner have been locked in a protracted arm-wrestling contest over fiscal policy for the past two years. For that entire duration, the crux of their policy war has been a dispute between the role of tax revenues versus spending cuts in enhancing economic solvency and deficit reduction.

But this week, that became a war within the Republican Party.

The week opened with Obama making an offer to hold tax rates steady up to $400,000 in income, inching slightly closer to the Republicans from his initial insistence that cut tax rates only be frozen up to $250,000.

Boehner, knowing and telling his Republican caucus that after the election they would have to compromise and make a deal, bet that he could strengthen his bargaining hand by pushing for a bill to hold tax rates low up to a million dollars, even over a presidential veto. After all, Democrats had supported a similar measure before, and had spent the entire election cycle talking about “millionaires and billionaires” paying their fair share. It was to them Boehner’s bill addressed tax changes.

Had Boehner been able to muster support in his caucus for such a seemingly reasonable move, he might have been able to strengthen his bargaining hand with the president heading into a final week of negotiations. So he scheduled the vote.

But instead, he came up too short to see it through.

“The House did not take up the tax measure today because it did not have sufficient support from our members to pass,” Boehner said in a statement Thursday night.

In defense, he reverted to the Republicans’ regular stance on taxes versus spending cuts, arguing that the House, with its previous votes to extend all Bush tax cuts combined with a Thursday evening vote to divert sequestration cuts away from the military, had done its duty.

“The House has already passed legislation to stop all of the Jan. 1 tax rate increases and replace the sequester with responsible spending cuts that will begin to address our nation's crippling debt,” Boehner added. “The Senate must now act."

But that isn’t where Boehner started the night. And so Reid’s team, which always maintained that raising tax rates for the wealthy was an essential part of avoiding the fiscal cliff, is all but claiming a psychological win already.

“It is now clear that to protect the middle class from the fiscal cliff, Speaker Boehner must allow a bill to pass with a combination of Democratic and Republican votes,” Reid’s spokesman said in a statement.

If Boehner does turn to Democrats in the House for support, it would be a significant political victory for them. Though in past crises, Boehner has willingly solicited Democratic support — e.g. for 2011’s debt ceiling deal — he has never had to make the overture before proving he has support within his own party for his counteroffer.

“[Walking away] is a message to both Obama and to his conservative troops,” Herzik said. “Boehner’s saying look, these are the people I have to deal with to put this together, so Barack you gotta give me more. But his message to his troops is, you guys want to go down this path? Fine. I’m going home. You work it out.”

But even if Boehner proves unwilling to turn to Democrats — it is a potentially risky move for a guy who has to retain his Speakership in a few weeks — going off the cliff won’t necessarily rub off badly on Reid. Whereas in the past, he was Boehner’s counterpart at the negotiating table, this time, he isn’t directly in the line of fire to get blamed for the failure of negotiations.

“Reid’s strengthened because he doesn’t have to spend any political capital; this is just Obama and Boehner,” Herzik said. “Harry Reid can call a news conference and criticize folks, but has he had to do any heavy lifting so far? No ... he gets to enter the next round completely fresh.”

Polls also show the public will blame Republicans for an economic crash, a fact that Republicans who were ready to vote for Boehner’s Plan B says reveals the true intent behind what they see as Democrats’ unwillingness to bend.

“Comfortable in the belief that the House will be blamed if we go over the fiscal cliff, the president and the Senate majority can stick to their bargaining position,” said Nevada Rep. Mark Amodei, who planned to vote with Boehner Thursday night. “Let’s quit misrepresenting the facts to the people of America. It has become increasingly clear that a slow walk over the fiscal cliff is the preferred outcome for the White House and the Senate majority.”

But cliff or no cliff, if public opinion is swinging in their direction, there is little incentive for Democrats to abandon their positional advantage and acquiesce to the Republicans’ demands as they have done in lame duck sessions past (i.e. 2010).

With the president’s favorability numbers higher than they’ve been since 2009, an inauguration on the horizon and four more years of his presidency to go, there’s too much else for them to lose by backing down.

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  1. Enjoyed the article.

    Just wanted to point out that the only people who gain anything at all in the court of public opinion are....the Tea Party.

    Due to what happened yesterday, it is confirmed.

    Speaker Boehner is not in charge anymore.

    There is open rebellion within the Tea/Republican Party.

    On one side you have the Tea Party, which is a magnificent attempt by the Republican Party to re-create themselves and change their brand. They have smelled power, and they are wanting it badly. But the way they are going about it is hilarious. They are running a protest movement within the Republican Party.

    On the other side, the mainstream Republican Party cannot do anything anymore. Moderation is smacked down, spit on, kicked around and threatened with continual neverending primaries.

    I am now convinced that, for America to get anything done, within the time span of at least the next two years of this 113th Congress, you have to just ignore the House of Representatives. Carry on without them. Because they are just as effective as a soup sandwich.

    The Tea/Republicans are in turmoil. That will never get fixed. And the rage and dysfunction is so monumental that they have absolutely no willingness to reach across the aisle to work with the Democrats in the House AT ALL.

    Only thing we can do is just stand back. Forget the public opinion. It's not going to fix the Tea/Republican Party.

    The only thing that will fix anything is for the continuation of the Tea/Republican Party to be ripped to shreds, pounded into dust and then blown to the four winds.

    Not from outside influences. They are doing this all by their lonesome.

    They are in self-destruct mode right now. Incapable of even performing the simplest legislation.

    Having said that, I do encourage the above commenter, TeaPublicanPatriot, to continue with that rhetoric. Music to my ears. Please bang the cowbell louder. That's what makes the song better. And it will speed up the disintegration of the entire Tea/Republican Party.

    I gotta feeeeeeeee vahh. That's what makes the song. REALLY bang on that cowbell. I GOTTA HAVE MORE COWBELL, BABY!

    Rest in peace, Tea/Republican Party. You are in the death throes. It just started yesterday with this act of complete and utter political lunacy.

  2. As a legislative veteran I have seen this type of situation before. Speaker Boehner may be the leader of his party in the House, but more importantly he is Speaker of the House, not just his slim majority. A great speaker will round up the twenty votes he needs from his caucus and ask Rep. Pelosi to hold the Democratic caucus firm and run their 400K compromise through. Pelosi will have to hold her acerbic tongue and not demand any more than what OB has on the table. A failed speaker will continue to obfuscate, delay and, much worse, fail to control his caucus. If the latter, Speaker Boehner must resign his post. Neither legislative body can function with leaders who cannot enforce party discipline. LBJ could provide some guidance here.

  3. POTUS: Total lack of comprehension or arrogant insistence on the cliff.