Milbank: Boehner knows Obama holds all cards on fiscal cliff

By Dana Milbank, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

Published:

 
photoDana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. Email: danamilbank@washpost.com.

Speaker John Boehner emerged from his weekly huddle with House Republicans on Wednesday morning to take his place behind a mahogany lectern in front of a brown backdrop. The dark tones provided ideal camouflage for the deeply tanned speaker -- as though he were trying to vanish into the background. Who could blame him?

Right now, he is hoping to lead his fractious GOP to an orderly surrender. The question is no longer whether Republicans will give on taxes; they already have. All that remains to be negotiated is how they will increase taxes, and whether they will do it before or after the government reaches the "fiscal cliff."

"I believe that it's appropriate to put revenues on the table," Boehner told reporters. "Now, the revenues we're putting on the table are going to come from -- guess who? -- the rich." Socialist! Redistributionist! Spreader of wealth!

One of Boehner's lieutenants, Pete Roskam of Illinois, stepped to the microphones, essentially pleading for the president to show mercy. "President Obama has an unbelievable opportunity to be a transformational president -- that is, to bring the country together," he said. "Or he can dissolve into zero-sum-game politics, where he wins and other people lose." Those "other people" would be the House Republicans, because it is Obama who seems to be holding all the cards right now. A poll by the Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of Americans would blame Republicans for sending the nation off the cliff and only 27 percent would blame Obama. And Republicans didn't help their cause by ending their workweek on Wednesday and going home.

Looking to save face

Earlier in the week, Boehner offered Obama an $800 billion tax increase with the blessing of Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the Republicans' vice presidential nominee this year, and other House leaders. The speaker is trying to hold out for making those hikes come from lower deductions rather than higher rates, but the White House is feeling so confident that it dismissed Boehner's offer out of hand.

Republicans are looking for face-saving ways to retreat, such as allowing a tax increase to pass the House by voting "present" instead of "no." As they prepare to accommodate Obama, Republican leaders have begun to crack down on hard-liners in their ranks who routinely defy compromise. On Monday, two dissidents were removed from the House Financial Services Committee and two from the Budget Committee.Outside their meeting in the Capitol basement Wednesday morning, House Republicans were coming to grips with the inevitability of the tax increase. "We're not looking at doomsday," the GOP whip, Kevin McCarthy of California, assured CNN's Dana Bash. Ryan, who signed off on the hike, left the session with a wave. "I'm not doing press," he said. "I'm just saying 'hi.'"

Boehner emerged 17 minutes late and five minutes after his aides gave the camera crews a two-minute warning. "We made a good-faith offer," he began, promising that "our targets and frameworks are things that we can all agree on."

A few on the leadership team repeated the old platitudes about taxes. "An obsession to raise taxes is not going to solve the problem," said Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state sounded the refrain that "Washington does not have a revenue problem." But the bromides couldn't conceal the fact that House GOP leaders, with little dissent from the rank and file, had already acquiesced on some form of a tax increase. "House Republicans are prepared to get to yes," Roskam said. "House Republicans are not prepared to get to foolish, and it is foolish to reject President Obama's own self-described architecture of $3 in spending cuts for every dollar in new revenue."

Coming from a bunch that liked to say they wouldn't allow a dollar of new revenue even if it came with $10 in spending cuts, this white flag is as big as a bedsheet.