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Boehner's 'Plan B' isn't the deal, but it may lead to one

December 19, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • Negotiations over major policy disputes in Washington often have a certain Kabuki theater quality to them.
Negotiations over major policy disputes in Washington often have a certain… (Los Angeles Times )

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) is unusually concise for a politician, but the statement he made in front of the TV cameras Wednesday afternoon was terse even by his standards. He spent less than a minute telling reporters that President Obama's latest deficit-reduction offer was neither "balanced" nor "serious."

He then predicted that the House would pass a bill Thursday containing one part of the Republicans' fiscal plan: making permanent the Bush-era tax cuts for those earning less than $1 million a year. "Then the president will have a decision to make," Boehner said. "He can call on Senate Democrats to pass that bill, or he can be responsible for the largest tax increase in American history."

And with that, he walked out of the room.

The seemingly confrontational statement plays into the meme that the budget talks between Boehner and Obama have broken down again, making it harder for Congress to avert the huge tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect on Jan. 1. And maybe the talks really have gotten derailed, just when a deal seemed so close.

But as with Kabuki theater, there are conventions that negotiators observe in Washington that shouldn't be taken at face value.

First, the negotiators must visibly struggle to reach a deal. A dramatic breakdown or two in the talks can help convince each side that the other isn't going to just roll over.

Second, negotiators have to demonstrate that there are real limits to how far they can lead their side. In this case, Boehner may have scheduled a vote on his "Plan B" to show Obama how difficult it is for him to persuade Republicans to agree to raise taxes even on millionaires. (Witness the comments from some GOP lawmakers after Boehner briefed them Tuesday.) Another possible motive is to see how many Democrats in the House are willing to extend the Bush-era tax breaks for those earning more than the threshold Obama set during the campaign ($200,000 for individuals, $250,000 for couples).

Third, leaders have to give their members plausible deniability if things go wrong. Polls show that the public is ready to blame Republicans if the potentially recession-inducing tax hikes and spending cuts go into effect at the beginning of next year. That makes a certain amount of sense, considering that Democrats pushed a bill through the Senate to extend the Bush tax cuts to everyone earning less than the $200,000/$250,000 threshold, only to have it blocked by Republicans in the House. The bill Boehner teed up Thursday will give his members the chance to say that they too voted to avert the tax hikes on the vast majority of Americans.

In other words, it's an exercise in blame-shifting. But it's not a very good one, given that Boehner's bill is nothing more than an enormous tax cut with no offsetting reductions in spending. The budget talks are supposed to be about reducing the deficit over time, not making the problem worse.

Finally, negotiators have to construct a deal that allows both sides to claim victory. By formalizing the GOP position on taxes, Boehner's Plan B bill may shift the baseline in the talks. If Obama makes a new offer with deeper spending cuts, Republicans could agree to a plan that raises more revenue than Plan B yet still say they extracted a valuable concession from the president.  

Of course, the two sides disagree over how to measure Obama's proposal. The president says he's seeking $1.2 trillion in revenue while proposing the same amount in spending reductions. Boehner says the president's offer calls for $1.3 trillion in taxes and $850 billion in spending cuts.

Regardless, the high-level talks do seem to have slowed in anticipation of Thursday's House vote. At a news conference of his own Wednesday, Obama complained: "There's been a lot of posturing up on Capitol Hill, instead of just going ahead and getting stuff done. And we've been wasting a lot of time."

My guess is that Boehner isn't wasting time; he's doing what he has to do to get a deal that House Republicans can support. The House will pass the bill Thursday, then it will quickly run into a dead end in the Senate. And then maybe, just maybe, the Kabuki theater portion of this exercise will be complete, and Boehner and Obama can seal the deal.

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Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey

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