Why did John Boehner change his mind now on Bush tax cuts?

There are a couple of reasons House Republican leader John Boehner may be relenting on extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Both have to do with Election 2010.

Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo/File
In this June 16 file photo, House minority leader John Boehner (R) of Ohio, participates in a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington.

John Boehner appears to have softened his position on the issue of extending the Bush-era tax cuts. The House Republican leader on Sunday for the first time said he would support extending those reductions for the middle class but not the wealthy, if that was his only choice.

Why is he saying this now? After all, the Bush tax cuts have been an item of contention on Capitol Hill all summer. Until now, Representative Boehner and other GOP lawmakers have been adamant that a tax-cut extension should include everyone.

First of all, Boehner still says he believes a middle-class-only tax-cut policy is a bad idea.

“I don’t think that’s going to help our economy,” said Boehner on “Face the Nation” on CBS on Sunday.

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Republicans have long insisted that keeping taxes low on those at the top of America’s income scale is the best way to help the private sector generate new jobs.

That said, why would Boehner vote for a tax approach he still believes to be flawed? Several political theories come to mind.

He's getting ready to be speaker of the House. With many polls showing it likely that the GOP will make big gains this fall, it’s possible that Boehner will become speaker in the next Congress. That’s a very different job than the one he now holds. The speaker has more responsibility for governing the nation – and that means more responsibility for actually getting bills passed.

In a Republican-led House, Democrats would nonetheless constitute a substantial minority, and it’s likely they would fight hard against extending the cuts for the wealthy. By saying now that he is open to compromise, Boehner could be laying the foundation for a quick tax-cut deal over which he could preside.

Even if the House gets around to voting on tax cuts before the election, Boehner appears more statesmanlike just by talking about compromises. He could be gradually shifting from a purely oppositional approach to the Obama administration.

He's trying to make Republicans the party of "maybe." President Obama for months has described the GOP as the "party of no.” Republicans have voted against health-care reform and other White House priorities, in a party bloc. Democrats have long complained that their counterparts across the aisle won’t come out from behind their barricade and work together on legislation.

At his press conference on Friday, Mr. Obama brought up the specific tax-cut issue, saying that the Republicans wanted simply to bring back Bush policies, and were eager to give millionaires and billionaires a break at a time when ordinary Americans were struggling.

Softening this oppositional image could be a key to putting Republicans over the top in the election, allowing them to win control of the House and perhaps even the Senate. If Boehner’s change of heart means a tax bill gets passed in the few weeks of work time that remain to Congress ahead of that election, GOP candidates across the country could point to the bill as an example of how their party can be productive.

Meanwhile, the administration has embraced Boehner’s apparent change of heart, at least rhetorically. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs made the rounds of TV talk shows Monday morning, saying he hopes Republicans are serious about their change of heart on taxes. And Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said Monday in a speech that he’s “encouraged” by this development.

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