WASHINGTON — John Boehner is in a box.
The House speaker’s Republican caucus doesn’t entirely trust him. His understudy, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, has set him up for a fall with the tea party set. Worst of all, his political archrival is now praising him.
“Speaker Boehner and myself had been in a series of conversations about doing the biggest deal possible,” President Obama announced at a news conference Monday morning, confirming reports of their clandestine meetings. “I want to say I appreciate Speaker Boehner’s good-faith efforts.”
If this weren’t damaging enough for Boehner, Obama added that “I have a stake in John Boehner successfully persuading his caucus that this is the right thing to do.” Obama further vouched that “Speaker Boehner has been very sincere,” adding: “I think he’s a good man who wants to do right by the country.”
It was possibly the biggest interparty kiss since Joe Lieberman planted one on President George W. Bush — and an hour later the speaker called his own news conference in the Capitol so he could wipe the presidential lipstick from his cheek. “I appreciate what the president said today,” a somber Boehner replied. “But the gulf between the two parties now is about policy.”
Boehner is right. The gulf is about policy: the policy of his tea party backbenchers not to compromise on anything. This has put Boehner, a dealmaker, in the impossible position of leading a House Republican caucus that is inherently ungovernable.
As The Washington Post’s Paul Kane expertly documented, it was largely Boehner’s idea to use the debt-limit vote as a way to strike a “grand bargain” that would restore the nation’s finances. Surprisingly, Obama went along with it, offering some $4 trillion in deficit reduction and putting on the table reforms to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the tax code.
All Obama sought in exchange for these concessions was a tax increase equal to about a third of the size of the spending cuts. But when Boehner took that sweet deal to Cantor and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, they told him the caucus would balk. Over the weekend, Boehner shut down the grand-bargain talks.
A puffy-eyed Obama, appearing with his top advisers in the White House briefing room Monday morning, voiced sympathy for Boehner. Asked by CBS’ Chip Reid whether the real obstacle was the “tea-partyers on the Hill,” Obama concurred: “His politics within his caucus are very difficult.”
Asked by National Journal’s George Condon whether Boehner could deliver the votes of his caucus, Obama replied that “the politics that swept him into the speakership were good for a midterm election; they’re tough for governing. And you know, part of what the Republican caucus generally needs to recognize is that American democracy works when people ... are willing to make some sensible compromises to solve big problems. And I think that there are members of that caucus who haven’t fully arrived at that realization yet.”
Cantor clearly has not. Minutes after Obama finished his news conference, the majority leader sat with reporters at a table on the third floor of the Capitol to offer his response. “We are not going to raise taxes — that’s all,” he proclaimed. As for Boehner, Cantor maintained that they are “on the same page” and that any suggestion to the contrary was mere “soap opera.”
The House speaker, meanwhile, was scrambling to reassure his restive caucus that he would never even think about suggesting a tax increase. “Anyone who knows me and knows my record knows that I’m not going to agree to a tax hike,” he told radio host Laura Ingraham.
Boehner gave a weak smile as he approached the lectern for his hastily arranged news conference. He did not dispute an estimate presented to him by Fox News’ Chad Pergram that 80 to 120 House Republicans -- a third to half his caucus — would oppose an increase in the debt limit with or without a tax increase. And he declined a request to name a concession his own side could support.
“I agree with the president that we cannot allow our nation to default on our debt,” he said. “But to prevent a default, a bill must pass the Congress, and a bill that doesn’t meet these tests” —that is, a bill with a tax increase -- “can’t pass the House of Representatives.”
Normally, a speaker would twist arms until he won support for the grand bargain he had negotiated. But in this House Republican caucus, leaders are followers.