House Speaker John Boehner gave a spirited reply when asked recently about whether his party’s resistance to middle-class tax cuts risked making Republicans appear to be lackeys of the rich.
“I’ve got 11 brothers and sisters on every rung of the economic ladder, all right?” Boehner said. “My dad owned a bar. I know what’s going on out in America.”
So Boehner has his finger on the American pulse because his deceased father owned a saloon? What strange brew have they been pouring in the speaker’s office?
Whatever advice Earl Boehner has been giving his son from the grave, it doesn’t appear to be working. On Monday, the bar owner’s son aligned himself with House conservatives in opposition to a broadly bipartisan plan to extend a payroll tax cut for 160 million Americans.
This new position, essentially reversing the one Boehner voiced a mere three days earlier, proves anew that the old-school speaker is less a leader of his caucus than a servant of his radical backbenchers. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say he’s their barkeep.
Three times at a news conference last Friday, Boehner was asked whether he could support a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut, as Senate Democrats and Republicans were planning. Three times, Boehner declined to state an objection to the two-month extension (he objected to a different part of the agreement, about an oil pipeline, which the senators subsequently changed to his liking).
“I just gave you an answer. How much clearer can I be?” Boehner said, refusing to take issue with the two-month extension.
And so senators passed the extension, 89-10. Tea party heroes Pat Toomey and Marco Rubio voted for the compromise. The fiercest budget cutter of them all, Sen. Tom Coburn, voted for it. Republican lions such as John Cornyn, Jon Kyl and Mitch McConnell voted for it. Only seven Republicans voted “no.”
McConnell, the Senate Republican leader who negotiated the compromise, kept Boehner informed at every step — and was confident enough in Boehner’s acquiescence that his office sent out a notice saying there would be no more legislative business in the Senate until 2 p.m. Jan. 23. But Boehner’s backbenchers — particularly the tea party freshmen — had other ideas, and, in a Saturday teleconference, made clear to Boehner that he would have to abandon the compromise.
The House Republican freshmen have become a bit tipsy with power, and freshman Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., on Monday boasted at a news conference that his class is “performing more like sophomores now than freshmen.”
Actually, their performance is more sophomoric than anything, but they’ve been able to deliver a string of insults to Boehner, most notably the July revolt that forced the speaker to pull his debt-limit plan from the floor.
If Boehner needs any more evidence he’s out of style in his party, he can ponder the rise in the presidential race of Newt Gingrich, the man Boehner tried to depose from the speakership in 1997, losing his leadership position in the process.
On Monday, Boehner had the unpleasant task of going before the cameras to explain why his House Republicans, after championing tax cuts for millionaires, would be voting against a tax cut for ordinary Americans.
“You know, Americans are tired of, uh, Washington’s short-term fixes and gimmicks,” Boehner began. He complained that “the Senate Democratic leaders passed a two-month extension” — omitting mention that Senate Republicans, with Boehner’s knowledge and tacit support, had agreed.
So rather than pass a two-month extension, he’s willing to have the tax cuts lapse entirely when they expire at year’s end?
“I don’t believe the differences between the House and Senate are that great,” Boehner said, by way of reassurance. But this only confirmed that his side was making a big stink over nothing.
Why didn’t he raise warnings earlier about the two-month extension? “Uh, we expressed our reservations about what the Senate was doing,” he said.
What did he make of the fact that 90 percent of the Senate supported the compromise? Boehner, in reply, demanded to know why “we always have to go to the lowest common denominator” — which is exactly what he had done in letting his backbenchers lead him.
The speaker denied the obvious truth that he had encouraged the compromise before opposing it. He licked his lips, gave a “thanks, everybody” and disappeared.
The sophomoric freshmen must have needed their barkeep to serve them another round.
Dana Milbank’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.