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GOP Chaos on Capitol Hill?

Not really.

Jan 14, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 17 • By TOD LINDBERG
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After the 2010 election, with Democrats still in control of a lame-duck Congress but the GOP barbarians at the gates, Obama got in trouble with his base by arranging relatively quickly for a two-year extension of the Bush-era tax rates. He probably had several reasons for doing so, not least of which was neutralizing a GOP issue for 2012. Also, if he figured he could get his increase in the top rate through after he won reelection, he was right. But he paid a price with his core supporters, and there would be no subsequent incentive for quick agreement once the GOP took control of the House.

With divided party control, the only thing that produces an agreement in the end is the preference of both sides for something over nothing. Republicans weren’t going to allow the United States to default in 2011, and President Obama wasn’t going to refuse the budget-cutting mechanisms the GOP was able to get through Congress as a condition. Republicans weren’t going to go over the fiscal cliff in order to stand in principle against increases in the top tax rate, and Democrats weren’t going to make them do so by insisting in the Senate on provisions that would kill the deal.

But weren’t most House Republicans opposed to the final deal? Didn’t that very same House GOP refuse to go along with Speaker John Boehner’s “Plan B,” which would have kept the Bush rates in effect for all incomes under $1 million, thereby undermining his negotiating position and threatening his speakership within his own conference?

Sure, Republican House members voted 2-1 against the final deal. Why wouldn’t they? It wasn’t their policy preference, and they knew it was going to pass anyway. With Obama’s imprimatur on the deal, Boehner was responsible not for delivering his conference, but only for securing enough GOP votes to allow passage with overwhelming Democratic support. As for the failure of “Plan B,” it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which it did pass and the final outcome was much more favorable to the GOP. The Senate was not going to rubber-stamp a House “Plan B” bill: Having passed a bill with the top-rate increase taking effect at $250,000, the Senate would have insisted on amending the House bill and sending it back with a compromise number. Say, $450,000. The Biden-McConnell talks were actually “Plan C,” to the same result.

If anything, the collapse of “Plan B” protected GOP House members by allowing 151 of them to stand on principle by voting against any increase in tax rates without consequence. For many of those House members who did support the final deal, timing was no doubt propitious: The vote came after the Bush rates expired on midnight, January 1, so the vote was arguably about keeping taxes from going up on the 99 percent, to coin a term. Boehner’s speakership was never in serious jeopardy.

It’s clear that Obama wanted a deal and that his only red line was an increase to Clinton-era levels in the top tax rate for high-earners, however delimited. It also seems likely that Obama was worried that Senate majority leader Harry Reid was willing to go over the cliff and blame the GOP. In the end, Obama undercut Reid by empowering Vice President Joe Biden to negotiate the final deal with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. Reid cronies have since been anonymously grousing about being left out in the cold. They were. Biden is a figure both sides in the Senate trust more than they do Reid.

The president had the upper hand in the fiscal cliff drama because the Bush tax rates were expiring January 1 anyway. The debt limit negotiations afford him no such advantage. But they do have a deadline of about March 1, which means there will be tough negotiations ending in an agreement. That agreement will be whatever the House and Senate say is the price of the increase. Between now and the 11th hour, and ever after, Democrats will portray the negotiations as more GOP-caused chaos, because that’s what they want as backdrop to the 2014 election. It’s a shame that so many people who ought to know better will take them at face value.

Tod Lindberg, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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