The best way to understand why House Speaker John Boehner (R–OH) is in trouble with other House Republicans on the payroll tax extension is to refer back yet again to my experience late last February when I spoke at the first meeting of the House tea party caucus.
The whole story is here for those who didn’t read or don’t remember it.
If you’re pressed for time…two of the most important things I heard at that meeting were that the tea partiers said very explicitly they didn’t trust Boehner or Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), and that the biggest mistake Newt Gingrich (R-GA) made in 1995 and 1996 when he was fighting Bill Clinton on budget issues is that he gave-in too early. He would have gotten much more they said had he just held out until the very last minute.
As I’ve said before, it’s hard to see what the tea party folks really meant by “last-minute” given that there were government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 and, technically at least, Gingrich held out beyond the moment when they could have been averted, that is, well after the last minute.
Nevertheless, in light of the anger the tea party wing of the House GOP apparently feels after Boehner’s unilateral decision in late December to end the fight with the White House over the payroll tax extension, the GOP members believe the speaker caved too early. From their perspective, he/they didn’t get the best possible deal.
And because of that, there are calls for Boehner’s head.
If it actually occurs, Boehner almost certainly will survive the fight. Less than half of the House GOP caucus is made up of tea partiers and not all of them will vote to depose the speaker if the vote happens. Unless something changes, at most only a third of the caucus will vote against him.
But to avoid what in essence would be a no-confidence vote that would leave him and the House GOP seriously weakened no matter what the actual result, Boehner will have to do more than simply make a heartfelt speech telling his caucus that he made a mistake that won’t be repeated when the payroll tax cut expires at the end of February.
No matter what the polls say about how congressional Republicans are perceived on this issue, Boehner will have to make what sounds like outrageous demands of the White House and not cut a deal until after February 28th…at the earliest…even if congressional Democrats and the administration give him everything he wants.
This would be completely in keeping with how Boehner won kudos from his caucus on all the budget-related fights of 2011 when he announced agreements with the White House at the very last minute. It’s important to note the tea partiers got far less in each case (you could even say they got hosed) than they wanted. But it looked as if they held out for the best possible deal and left nothing on the table in the process. Boehner was cheered for his efforts.
For example, the final deal of the last continuing resolution for 2011 was announced at almost 11 pm, that is, just an hour before the government would have shut down, but the actual spending cut was miniscule compared to what the GOP wanted. The debt ceiling deal — the Budget Control Act — was decided so last-minute that it actually was signed the day after the Treasury said it was out of cash-management gimmicks. The deficit reductions House Republicans demanded in exchange have not yet materialized and may well be canceled or delayed.
To get ahead of the more extreme members of his own caucus, I’m expecting Boehner to come out swinging on payroll taxes as soon as the dust settles on the Iowa caucus tomorrow.
He’ll take the toughest possible position on another extension by insisting not just on offsetting spending cuts, but on cuts that his caucus loves and the White House can’t stand. He’ll also likely indicate that, no matter what the conference committee between the House and Senate decided, he won’t bring up a deal in the House unless it meets the specific criteria he sets.
And he’ll keep this up until the 11 pm news airs on the east coast on February 28th.
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