Would a 'fiscal cliff' deal imperil John Boehner's tenure as House speaker?

Resolving the fiscal cliff this year may require Speaker John Boehner to take to the House floor a deal that a majority of Republicans will reject – a move that could risk his speakership in the next Congress, says the Democrats' Rep. Chris Van Hollen.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Congressman Chris Van Hollen speaks at the Monitor-hosted breakfast in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

Averting the "fiscal cliff" with a deal that most Americans would see as reasonable is within reach, but House leader John Boehner may not be able to take it to the floor for a vote until after he is reelected speaker on Jan. 3, says Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee.

That's because what President Obama calls a "balanced" deal – that is, one that includes tax hikes on the highest incomes as well as spending cuts and entitlement reform – is likely to "create more churning" in the House Republican caucus, and may mean that Mr. Boehner "doesn't get the votes necessary [to be reelected as speaker] on Jan. 3," he said at a Monitor breakfast with reporters on Wednesday.

"I hope he wouldn't avoid tough decisions simply to take us into January after his swearing-in, but I'm becoming increasingly worried that that's exactly what's going on," Representative Van Hollen says.

To avoid some $600 billion in automatic tax hikes and spending cuts that begin to take effect as of Jan. 1, the White House and Congress have, as a practical deadline, until week's end or, at the latest, Christmas to reach a deal, he says. "I don't assign a high probability to end of this week; I assign a high hope."

Republicans, too, charge that Mr. Obama is slow-walking the fiscal-cliff negotiations. “The president seems to be walking us ever so slowly toward the cliff," says House majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, after a meeting with the House GOP caucus on Wednesday. 

"We've said we are committed to staying here. We are going to stay here right up until Christmas Eve, throughout the time and period before the New Year, because we want to make sure that we resolve this in an acceptable way for the American people," he added.

Democrats say the November election shifted the ground under long-standing GOP bargaining positions, such as no tax hikes, ever.

"The idea that the speaker may have to bring something for the good of the country to the floor of the House that does not get a majority of Republican votes may be necessary right now," says Van Hollen. "The president likes to remind people that he won the election on the issues we're talking about."

Democrats are also determined not to let Republicans use the need to raise the national debt ceiling, expected as early as February, as a crisis point to leverage more spending cuts. "This notion that Republicans are going to threaten the US and the national economy in order to exact certain demands is one that the American people are not going to stand for this time," he adds.

The political reality is that most House Republicans have signed a pledge to never raise taxes. Many can reasonably expect a primary-election challenge if they break that pledge. Here's the case that Boehner needs to take to House Republicans to avoid the fiscal cliff, Van Hollen says:

  • The biggest tax increase happens if Congress does nothing.
  • Even if the speaker cannot produce enough GOP votes to back a deal that averts the fiscal cliff, Democrats can provide the needed support.
  • There are better ways to achieve the kinds of savings in Medicare and other entitlements that Republicans want without passing costs along to the poorest Americans.
  • A threat to "bring down the economy" by threatening the "full faith and credit" of the United States by a debt-ceiling fight is an extreme position that voters will not tolerate.

"We could get this done if the speaker were willing to bring to the floor of the House a bill that does not necessarily get a majority of Republican votes," Van Hollen says.

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