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Speaker John A. Boehner is keeping his power base close as Congress moves into the final weeks of negotiations with President Barack Obama on a deal to forestall the fiscal cliff, and the Ohio lawmaker has expanded his inner circle to include key chairmen who could help sell a tough deal.
Although he is the sole negotiator when he speaks with the president, every morning that the House is in session, Boehner holds what the GOP calls a daily management meeting with his leadership team and top committee chairmen, a group that has intimate influence over the party’s negotiating position and will be tasked with selling a deal to the broader conference.
That does not, however, translate to automatic buy-in inside the room.
Boehner’s leadership team is ever-present: Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and incoming GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., would be in the morning meetings, fiscal cliff notwithstanding.
But Boehner chose to add heavyweight committee chairmen to the meetings when the fiscal cliff negotiations began in earnest, bringing in Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, and Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp and Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, both of Michigan.
The group might find itself instrumental in helping Boehner through the talks and even in burnishing a legacy, if a grand bargain emerges. After dealing with a cantankerous conference last year during highly public and embarrassing spending battles on the budget and debt limit, the speaker and president fell short of a grand bargain. If Boehner secures such a deal this time around, it will be because he has exerted more influence, most prominently over his own conference.
The participants have repeatedly followed Boehner on several tough votes, including the 2011 deficit reduction/debt ceiling deal. Ryan, however, deviated from leadership when he voted against a payroll tax cut extension that Camp negotiated.
With a restive conservative faction to tend to and potential higher political aspirations, Ryan will have to weigh, perhaps more than the others in the room, the costs and benefits of voting for a fiscal cliff compromise.
But particularly in a negotiation where the president has so far refused to budge on the issue of raising tax rates on the wealthy, it could mean a tough vote for everyone, even if reforms to entitlements materialize.
The same can be said for the rest of the conference, noted a GOP aide. “It depends more on the deal than the people who are at the table,” the aide said. “If you have any tax increases you are going to lose a certain percentage of our conference no matter who is in the room.”
The jurisdictions of the chairmen is an important factor. Camp handles taxes and some Medicare issues, while Upton owns most of the other entitlement programs. Ryan will eventually be tasked with crafting a budget blueprint based on whatever final deal is struck.
What the men represent as a broader part of the conference is just as important.
“It symbolizes the full package of the Republican team and it provides the speaker with a united front in negotiations with the White House,” said another GOP aide involved in the fiscal talks. “If you can get the people who are seated around that daily management meeting bought in, it should certainly have a buy-in from the conference writ large.”
Camp is known as the dependable wonk, a veteran of several high-level fiscal negotiations including the successful deal to extend the payroll tax cut he struck with Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. Camp is also pushing tax reform with his gavel. Upton is a moderate and longtime member of the Tuesday Group.
“It’s pretty obvious that Mr. Ryan also provides a pretty hefty outreach to the conservative bloc of the conference,” the second aide noted.
The seven leaders showed a unified front when they all signed on to the initial Republican fiscal cliff proposal, despite the fact that the offer included $800 billion in revenue. That number drew gripes from congressional conservatives and outside groups.
They have also remained unanimously opposed to a tax rate increase on high-income earners, a key demand of the Obama administration, and have repeatedly called on the administration to come forward with entitlement cuts.
Without question, if a deal comes together that all seven can agree on, it can pass the House. But Boehner’s inclusion of the committee chairmen in the negotiating process also serves the practical purpose of keeping them invested in the outcome. “It’s not as if John Boehner is out there making a deal on his own and he brings it back to those six people and says take it or leave it,” the aide said. “When you’re the guy actually cutting the deal, you can’t walk away from your own deal.”