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John Boehner’s moment of truth

Will the Speaker of the House be able to take 'yes' for an answer?

By Guest blogger / July 18, 2011

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, right, speaks during a news conference with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., left, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, July 15, 2011. Boehner is stuck in a hard spot, and may try to sell a budget deal that many of his fellow Republicans oppose.

Susan Walsh / AP

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In July 2000, under immense pressure from President Clinton, the Israeli government made Yasser Arafat a remarkable offer: It would recognize a Palestinian state that included Gaza, more than 90 percent of the West Bank, and a big chunk of Jerusalem. But Arafat, who had worked all his life to create a Palestinian nation, walked away from the deal, unwilling to face down rejectionist elements of his own movement.

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Today, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is having his own Profiles in Courage moment. Congressional Republicans, through tenacity and discipline, have dragged President Obama far to the right. The White House seemed ready to give Republicans a long-term budget agreement they could only dream about when they won control of the House last fall. Not only would this fiscal plan mirror the GOP’s vision of smaller government, it would effectively force Democrats to abandon two of their most powerful political weapons–Medicare and Social Security.

All the GOP needed to do was declare victory and pop the bubbly. Yet Boehner lost his will, unwilling to face down rejectionist elements of his own party.

Recall that Obama began debt limit negotiations by demanding a clean extension of federal borrowing authority with zero deficit reduction. He had ignored the recommendations of the chairs of his own deficit commission. And he had proposed a 2012 budget that would have added $3 trillion in red ink over the next decade.

Yet, by last week Obama had staked the full authority of his presidency on a plan that reportedly would have reduced the projected deficit by $4 trillion—with perhaps two-thirds coming from spending. He had agreed to significant cuts in Medicare and Medicaid and changes in Social Security. He had seemingly agreed to make permanent nearly all of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. And while Obama was insisting on about $1 trillion in new revenues over a decade, most would come from reducing or eliminating tax preferences rather than raising rates.

In all, Obama’s offer was far more ambitious than what his fiscal commission chairs, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, proposed. The president would have reduced the deficit by roughly as much as the House Republicans, whose plan Democrats had ridiculed as absurd just weeks before.