Flabbergasted Boehner plays a weak hand

WASHINGTON — How dare he? President Obama, I mean: How dare he do what he promised during the campaign? How dare he insist on a “balanced approach” to fiscal policy that includes an teensy-weensy tax increase for the rich? Oh, the humanity.

Republicans are having conniptions. Witness the way House Speaker John Boehner reacted when Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner presented the administration’s proposals on taxes and spending:

“I was flabbergasted,” Boehner told Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.” “I looked at him and said, ‘You can’t be serious.’ I’ve just never seen anything like it. You know, we’ve got seven weeks between Election Day and the end of the year. And three of those weeks have been wasted with this nonsense.”

The “nonsense” in question is a set of perfectly reasonable measures that Obama wants Congress to approve. Nothing in his package should be a surprise — except, perhaps, that the president has opened this negotiation by demanding what he really wants, rather than what he believes it would be convenient for Boehner to deliver.

“The president’s idea of a negotiation is, roll over and do what I ask,” Boehner groused.

Hmmm. Where do you imagine the president might have learned this particular bargaining technique? Might his instructors have been Boehner’s own House Republicans, who went so far as to hold the debt ceiling for ransom — and with it, the nation’s full faith and credit — in order to get their way?

Obama’s proposals include effectively taking away congressional authority over the debt ceiling, which would preclude a repeat of last year’s hostage crisis. Boehner called it “silliness” to think that Congress would willingly surrender a power it can use to “leverage the political process.” So it’s fine when Congress uses muscle to get its way but not when the president does the same?

“Right now, I would say we’re nowhere, period,” said Boehner. “We’re nowhere.”

Not true. It’s just that we’re somewhere Republicans would prefer not to be. We’re just past an election in which Obama won a second term and Democrats gained seats in both houses of Congress. And we’re nearing a “fiscal cliff” of tax increases and budget cuts that horrify Republicans more than Democrats.

In Boehner’s view, he has already made a major concession: He announced that Republicans are “willing to put revenue on the table,” perhaps to the tune of $800 billion over a decade. But he insists this money has to come from eliminating deductions and closing loopholes — and not from any increase in income tax rates.

Obama insists that a modest increase in tax rates for the wealthiest households — from 35 percent to 39.6 percent, the rate during the Clinton years — must be part of any package.

This fight isn’t about whether the rich will pay more in taxes; it is clear that they will. It’s about whether this new revenue is collected in a way that allows House Republicans to say they have kept their pledge never to raise marginal tax rates for anyone, for any purpose.

Refusing to budge has served House Republicans well in previous budget negotiations. But the no-taxes-ever bulwark has not served the country well, and if Obama sees a way to blast through it, he would be remiss not to try.

Geithner seems confident. “You’ve heard (Republicans) for the first time, I think, in two decades, acknowledge that they are willing to have revenues go up as part of a balanced plan,” he said Sunday. “That’s a good first step, but they have to tell us what they are willing to do on rates and revenues. That’s going to be very hard for Republicans. We understand that, but there’s no way through this without that.”

He sounds like the doctor who says you might feel a “pinch” or a bit of “discomfort.” Meanwhile, he’s coming at you with a needle the size of an icepick.

There is no guarantee that Obama will get everything he wants out of this showdown. But I’d rather be playing the president’s hand than Boehner’s.

Most House Republicans are in safe districts, but not all of them — and the GOP majority will be smaller when the new Congress convenes. Polls indicate that most Americans believe the tax increase Obama seeks for the wealthy is no big deal. It’s hard to imagine how Republicans can possibly get a better offer on taxes and spending in January than they can get now.

Hence Boehner’s urgency. Time is not on his side.

Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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