You have to feel a least a little sorry for John Boehner.
In fact, I wouldn’t blame the speaker of the House for wondering what terrible thing he did in some previous life to deserve being handed this budget mess. He finds himself under siege not just by his opponents, which is to be expected, but by his supposed friends as well.
And despite what some of those “friends” would like to believe, this is a battle that Boehner cannot fight and win, and he knows it. The issues at stake in the budget standoff are essentially the same issues fought out during the presidential campaign, and as speaker, Boehner has neither the pulpit nor the firepower to win against Obama where Mitt Romney failed.
That was confirmed by a new poll released Tuesday in which just 27 percent of Americans said they would blame President Obama if budget negotiations fail and the country is forced off the so-called fiscal cliff. Almost twice as many — 53 percent — would blame congressional Republicans. And yes, while Boehner deserves some of the blame for that situation, it is shared by the entire Republican Party. For years, they have celebrated themselves as unbending and uncompromising, making stubborn intransigence a point of party pride.
So they have no right to be dismayed that that’s how the American public has come to see them.
In a belated effort to try to dispel that image, Boehner proposed a budget package Monday that included $800 billion in increased taxes, a step that he and his fellow Republicans had long insisted they would never take. If you overlook the fact that the math doesn’t work — it is impossible to raise the $800 billion in promised revenue through the tax changes offered by Boehner — the proposal does represents a welcome step toward reality.
And for taking that step, Boehner has of course been hammered by those who are supposedly on his side. Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, said that “Speaker Boehner’s $800 billion tax hike will destroy American jobs and allow politicians in Washington to spend even more, while not reducing our $16 trillion debt by a single penny.” The conservative Heritage Foundation followed suit, calling the Boehner plan “little more than categorical, pre-emptive capitulation.”
And of course, the proposal that conservatives saw as “capitulation” was rejected by Obama as far short of what will be needed in a final deal. The president noted that he ran for re-election on a promise to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans, and he repeated his insistence that it be included as part of any final package.
Clearly, after years of GOP obstruction, Obama isn’t in the mood to let Boehner off lightly.
In his package, Boehner did make at least two proposals that ought to be seriously considered:
— The speaker advocated a slight change in how future cost-of-living adjustments are made to Social Security benefits, a reform that would affect mainly Social Security recipients who have other sources of income. It’s a change that Obama tentatively agreed to more than a year ago, before negotiations failed. Including it in the final deal would give Boehner political cover as an entitlement reform and would also be good fiscal policy.
— Boehner also proposed saving money by delaying Medicare eligibility from age 65 to age 67. It’s a popular proposal among Republicans, who justify it by pointing out that people are now living longer. However, that isn’t true across the board. Among upper-income, presumably white-collar Americans, the average lifespan of a 60-year-old male has indeed increased by more than six years since 1972. But among lower-income males, it increased by only two years. For those in more physically demanding, lower-income jobs, delaying Medicare coverage would be a real hardship.
Given that increasing lifespan differential, however, it would be perfectly reasonable to charge wealthier Americans slightly higher monthly Medicare premiums, as Boehner proposes. Because that would be scored as an entitlement cut, it would also help Boehner fend off those in his own party who are going to be very unhappy with the deal that is eventually reached.
That too is something Obama has to keep in mind.
– Jay Bookman