A day after the November elections, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said Republicans are ready to be led by President Barack Obama. Much to their dismay, they feel like they are being bullied instead.
The frustration is seeping through, as, for the first time in a while, Republicans do not seem to have an upper hand in negotiations. Instead, they are a step behind, relegated to reactive politics as Obama, emboldened by a decisive re-election and more Democrats on the way in the next Congress, takes his case to the public and presents private offers the GOP is certain to reject.
Obama met with CEOs earlier this month, and then Republicans did. Obama met with small-business owners, and a Republican meeting with small-business owners will follow this Wednesday.
But no counter-meeting can obscure the fact that Obama’s bully pulpit far surpasses what any congressman — even the speaker — is able to deliver. So as Obama addressed a crowd at a campaign-style rally in Pennsylvania on Friday and called on Congress to raise taxes on high-income earners, the speaker and his conference were left stewing in the Capitol.
Boehner held an impromptu news conference directly after the president spoke, saying that talks are at a “stalemate” until the president delivers what the speaker deems a serious proposal.
It is becoming apparent, however, that the president is holding firm in order to smoke Republicans out. As he stated during his Friday rally, he will accept nothing short of a hike on top tax rates. GOP aides are beginning to concede privately that the choice may very well come down to allowing the tax rate hike or going over the fiscal cliff. GOP leaders, meanwhile, publicly refuse to entertain the idea of budging on tax rates.
Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, a Boehner ally and a key player on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, said Obama is overplaying his hand and acting as if he had won every state and 75 percent of the vote.
“It’s just shocking to me that a president who gets fewer states in this election than the previous election and a smaller percentage of the vote, acts like he got a mandate,” he said. “This is unacceptable. This is not leadership. This is not leadership in any way shape or form from the president, and I’m personally very frustrated.”
To be sure, the opening week of post- Thanksgiving negotiations was dominated by public posturing and theatrics as leaders attempted to maneuver their chess pieces into position for this week’s continued debate. Most on Capitol Hill know that real progress will not begin to show until closer to Christmas.
House Republicans, nevertheless, realize that in the meantime, they can do little other than wait for the president to act.
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, conceded Friday that there will likely be more theatrics before a resolution emerges, and he said that short of holding news conferences decrying the president, there is not much Republicans can do to move the negotiations along.
“What needs to happen is the president and John Boehner need to get back into a room and actually start negotiating instead of this kind of nonsense with [Treasury Secretary Timothy F.] Geithner coming up and throwing out this piece of paper that’s . . . just laughable,” he said. “That’s what leadership is all about, and what you need is a White House that’s willing to lead.”
On Thursday, Geithner offered Republicans a package of $1.6 trillion in tax increases, including increases in estate and capital gains taxes, $50 billion in stimulus spending, a permanent raising of the debt ceiling, a one-year deferral of sequestration spending cuts and $400 billion in future entitlement cuts to be decided on in the next Congress.
Republicans were left to ponder whether and in what form to present a counteroffer. A decision had not been made by the weekend, with Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., telling reporters Friday: “We’re not interested in playing rope-a-dope.”
Though it is not a formal offer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told the Wall Street Journal Friday that his party could accept more revenue — though still not rate hikes — if Obama agrees to higher Medicare premiums for the wealthy, an increase in the Medicare eligibility age and a slowing of cost-of-living increases for programs such as Social Security.
Democrats, however, are just as wary of being sucker-punched.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said Friday that although Republicans want them to offer spending and entitlement cuts, previous spending battles have shown them that they should wait for the GOP to act.
“What the Republicans want is, they want give on their stuff first. There’s no give on taxes, revenues, none,” he said.
Hoyer described the GOP strategy as, “‘Let’s bargain. How about cutting this?’ ‘OK.’ ‘How about cutting this?’ ‘OK.’ ‘How about cutting this?’ ‘OK.’ And then you say to me, ‘Well, now, how about we raise revenues here?’ ‘We’re not going to talk about that. We’re going to walk out of the room.’ That’s what Cantor did. That’s essentially what Boehner did.”
Jonathan Strong contributed to this report.