Debt ceiling deal: Boehner's no-new-taxes pledge calms jittery conservatives

Conservative groups had been worried that House Speaker John Boehner would agree to some tax increases in a deal to trim deficits and raise the debt ceiling.

By , Staff writer

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    House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio speaks about talks aimed at raising US debt ceiling at the Capitol in Washington Monday.
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Pressed by outside conservative groups, House GOP leaders closed ranks on Monday to deny claims that Republicans have been – or could be – open to raising taxes as part of a deal to resolve the nation’s debt crisis.

Press reports that House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio was working out a “grand bargain” in closed talks with President Obama that included up to $1 trillion in tax hikes alarmed many conservatives, who launched public and private campaigns to ensure that GOP leaders not “cave” in debt talks.

But Speaker Boehner sought to calm those fears with comments Monday. “The American people understand that tax hikes destroy jobs,” he said at a press briefing before resuming talks at the White House. “The last thing we should be doing right now, at a time of 9.2 percent unemployment, is enacting more government policies that will destroy jobs.

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Conservative groups signaled their approval at Boehner's words. “The Speaker, particularly this afternoon, has been saying all the right things and that gives you cause for optimism,” says Brent Bozell, chairman of ForAmerica, an online conservative activist group that has called for ousting GOP lawmakers who vote to increase taxes.

“But history is history and unfortunately Republicans have caved in one deal or another,” he adds, citing President Reagan’s tax increases and the violation of an antitax pledge that cost President George Bush his 1992 reelection. “Every time I hear ‘grand bargain,’ I shudder, because it means we’ve moved the ball in their direction and spending will go up and taxes will go up.”

The GOP “Pledge to America” – a manifesto for the 2010 midterm election campaign – consistently refers to all tax hikes as “job killing” and pledges to “stop all tax increases.” House GOP leaders say that they are still committed to that pledge, despite talk of what may be in a “grand bargain” over cutting the deficit and raising the debt limit, now set at $14.3 trillion.

“That is just an irreconcilable difference, and if the president wants the debt ceiling, we’re not going to go along with that if they want to raise taxes, and it just is what it is,” said House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia at a press briefing on Monday.

Mr. Cantor’s independent decision to walk out of debt talks led by Vice President Joe Biden last month sparked renewed speculation of a power struggle between the two men. “The Speaker and I are on the same page,” said Cantor on Monday. “We don’t believe we should be raising taxes on the American people in a recession.”

President Obama renewed calls for Republicans to compromise on the tax issue at his own press conference on Monday. Tax increases would not increase until 2013, he said. These include getting rid of “egregious loopholes” or ending the Bush-era tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires who “can afford to pay a little bit more.”

“What I've also said to Republicans is, if you don't like that formulation, then I'm happy to work with you on tax reform that could potentially lower everybody's rates and broaden the base, as long as that package was sufficiently progressive so that we weren’t balancing the budget on the backs of middle-class families and working-class families, and we weren’t letting hedge-fund managers or authors of best-selling books off the hook,” he added.

But if Monday’s conspicuous display of unity by House Republicans is any indication, the president’s options on increasing taxes aren’t likely to be snapped up soon – despite a ticking default clock that gives negotiators only until Aug. 2 to work out a deal.

“Republicans haven’t voted for a tax increase since 1990,” says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. “Democrats who think Republicans can be talked into passing tax increases so that Democrats can spend more money have very, very long memories.”

Meanwhile, Democrats emerged from Monday’s debt talks at the White House reaffirming their commitment to protecting Social Security and Medicare from cuts in any “grand bargain” on debt. “These pillars of economic and health security should not be used as a piggybank to subsidize tax cuts for the wealthy,” said House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California, in a statement released after talks on Monday.

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