House Speaker John Boehner’s fiscal-cliff counter offer on Monday boots the ball squarely back into President Obama’s court, buying the Republican leader time as Democrats work the clock to force Republicans to cave in on their opposition to tax hikes for the wealthy.
Boehner’s offer of $800 billion in new revenue -- quickly panned by the White House as still too easy on the rich -- was a bid to move the tax debate back to where it was during last year’s negotiations over the debt ceiling. Democrats are pushing for more, as evidenced by Obama’s proposal for $1.6 trillion in new tax revenue.
Obama’s opening position last week infuriated congressional Republicans, who mocked the proposal. Boehner on Monday called it a “la-la land offer.” Still Democrats used the president’s plan to hammer Republicans for failing to offer an alternative.
Boehner’s counter, based on a proposal that former Clinton administration official Erskine Bowles made before the super committee last year, attempts to use a top Democrat’s framework to yank the negotiations rightward and take the rhetorical high ground. Unlike Obama's offer, Boehner said, the House Republicans’ counter isn’t a gussied up version of their budget blueprint but a plan that includes real concessions on the part of the GOP.
“We could have responded in kind but decided not to do that. And what we’re putting forward is a credible plan that deserves serious consideration by the White House,” Boehner told reporters. “I hope they will respond in a timely and responsible way.”
But, short of completely folding on tax increases for top earners, there is likely little Obama could say this early in the negotiations that Boehner would label “responsible.” And the same goes for the president, who has shown no willingness to back off his demand for tax-rate hikes on the rich.
“The Republican letter released today does not meet the test of balance,” White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said on Monday. “Their plan includes nothing new and provides no details on which deductions they would eliminate, which loopholes they will close, or which Medicare savings they would achieve."
And while the White House moved to quickly pan the offer, more telling will be how long it takes them to counter Boehner’s counter. If the president slow-walks his response, it’s a good signal that Democrats are working to push Republicans to the edge of the cliff in hopes they will relent.
And that may, in fact, be the strategy. A Democratic Senate aide said on Monday that it could be two weeks before the posturing ends and the real negotiations begin.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told National Journal on Monday that Boehner should allow a vote on a Senate-passed bill that extends the Bush-era tax cuts for everyone but the wealthy -- a move that would both force House Republicans to go on record in support of lower tax rates for the wealthy and help Democrats take more time off the clock.
“It is a dramatic down payment and it moves us forward in this conversation,” Durbin said in calling for the House vote on the Senate plan. “The rate has to go up.”
In addition to the $800 billion in revenue, Boehner’s counteroffer calls for $1.4 trillion in savings, including $600 billion in changes to health programs like Medicare and Medicaid; $300 billion in cuts to mandatory programs; $200 billion in revisions to the way the consumer price index is used by the federal government to set salaries and benefits; and $300 billion in further discretionary spending cuts. And, if measured by the same standards as Obama’s plan, Boehner’s counter would provide $4.6 trillion in deficit reduction, more than the $4 trillion offered by Obama, Republican aides say.
It does not, however, outline how to deal with a country fast approaching its debt limit or sequestration’s across-the-board spending cuts.
Jim O'Sullivan and Nancy Cook contributed to this report.