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Boehner May Have to Let the Fiscal Cliff Happen to Stay Speaker

Bottom line: The odds of the fiscal cliff happening are greater than most people are currently willing to admit.

I’ve come to the conclusion that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is going to have a very difficult time making any deal with the Democrats during the lame duck session on taxes and spending – that is, on preventing the fiscal cliff – and still remain as speaker in the next Congress. That means that avoiding the fiscal cliff will be far harder than any analysis of the situation has dared to conclude.

Yes, this assumes that Republicans will keep the majority in the House next year and, therefore, that the GOP will be picking one of its own as speaker. But just consider what would happen if the following occurs.

  1. No matter who wins the presidency and is in the majority in the Senate, the GOP retains control in the House.
  2. Boehner wants to stay as speaker even if House Republicans lose some seats and their majority gets smaller.
  3. The smaller GOP majority will prompt some to insist that Boehner should not be speaker in the next Congress. (Given the tea party wing’s distrust of Boehner since at least the beginning of 2011, it’s not at all clear that there won’t be some effort to unseat him even if the GOP doesn’t lose seats in the 2012 election.)
  4. In other words, Boehner will be on a very short leash during the lame duck and will have to continually prove to his tea party wing that he merits its support. Unless Democrats are willing to do something almost unimaginable and vote for Boehner, he cannot remain as speaker without the tea party wing’s votes.
  5. But Boehner isn’t likely to get tea party support if he shows any willingness to compromise with congressional Democrats or (perhaps especially) the Obama White House on extending the tax cuts and preventing the military spending portion of the sequester.
  6. This means there can’t be a quick deal of any kind on fiscal cliff-related policies because of the tea party’s mantra that concluding a deal long before the deadline means that you are probably leaving something on the table.
  7. It also likely means that any deal will be very difficult because of the tea party wing’s other basic tenet that compromise of any kind (and especially when it comes to taxes) is a sin.
  8. There will be a GOP caucus meeting during the lame duck at which the Republican candidate for speaker will be chosen and, in theory, that will settle the matter before the fiscal cliff is triggered at midnight January 1. But…and it’s a big but…the formal election of the speaker won’t occur until the new Congress convenes in early January after all of the fiscal cliff spending and tax changes have kicked in. That will give Boehner watchers and opponents another bite at the apple weeks after the caucus decision. In other words, Boehner will be on that very short leash into January and nothing will really be settled before the cliff happens.
  9. Boehner has already shown that he’s more than willing to take positions to accommodate his tea party wing so he can stay as speaker. For example, his fire-and-brimstone speech in May when he insisted that he would not allow the debt ceiling to be raised again unless federal spending was cut by the same number of dollars the borrowing limit is raised – as basic a tea party position as there is — was clearly an effort to show that faction of his party that he was one of them and totally worthy of their support. There’s no reason to think Boehner won’t do that and more again.

This scenario makes a deal to avert the fiscal cliff far less likely than anyone is assuming. Indeed, if the White House doesn’t cave to GOP demands, it almost seems as if Boehner will have to let the fiscal cliff happen to keep his job. It also seems to indicate that the most likely agreement will be one that stops the cliff from being implemented fully through the year after it has been triggered.

There are a number of reasons why this scenario might not play out.

For example, a total capitulation to the GOP by the White House might be more likely than it current seems. After all, the administration did that before when it came to letting the tax cuts expire in 2010.

Or Romney might get elected and the GOP will go with Boehner because it will assume that it will be able to fix what it doesn’t like after the inauguration.

Or the tea party wing will realize that not supporting Boehner when the House convenes in January wouldn’t make a great deal of sense because that could mean that the Democratic nominee would get the greatest number of votes and be elected speaker. That might force the tea party wing to have to decide who it dislikes more: Boehner or Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

To avoid this, the GOP caucus would have to make it clear to Boehner before the formal vote that he does not have enough support to be elected and, therefore, should step aside. The question at that point would be whether Boehner would have the testicular fortitude to play extreme political hardball, not withdraw and dare his own party to vote against him.

And it’s certainly also possible that after the election Boehner will become a much stronger speaker than he has been over the past two years and figure out a way to get the GOP caucus to go along with a compromise before the fiscal cliff occurs. On the one hand, he succeeded in doing something like that a few weeks ago when he convinced his caucus to vote for the fiscal 2013 continuing resolution with a higher spending level than many in the tea party wing wanted. On the other hand, Boehner was rolled repeatedly over the past two years by the tea party on taxing and spending issues and it may revert back to that previous take-no-prisoners attitude once the election is over.

Bottom line: The odds of the fiscal cliff happening are greater than most people are currently willing to admit.