Before he gets to the fiscal cliff, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) will have to traverse the conservative chasm.
On one side of the growing rift stand pragmatic conservatives such as Ann Coulter and Bill Kristol who say Republicans should give ground and let President Obama raise taxes on the wealthiest 2% of Americans. On the other side stand hard-line conservatives such as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a gaggle of right-wing pundits and tea party diehards who shout, “Never give in!” Straddling this divide is Boehner, trying to hold his caucus together while offering a middle path that would raise revenue from the rich while holding down tax rates.
Boehner's scheme to come up with $800 billion by closing tax loopholes for the wealthy has broad, if tenuous, support in the GOP caucus, but it is not a plan that has much chance of survival. It brings in only half the revenue that would come in if Bush-era tax cuts are allowed to expire as they are set to do on Jan. 1. President Obama and the Democrats are far more inclined to let that happen than to buy into Boehner's vague plan for which no details have yet been provided. Meanwhile, conservative purists are already calling Boehner a traitor to the cause for offering to take away deductions and tax credits from the upper class.
Boehner has the support of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), at least for now. But they are holding their noses. Neither guy is eager to raise revenue from the wallets of the rich. Cantor is as much a rival as an ally to Boehner, and Ryan, having come so close to the vice presidency as Mitt Romney’s running mate, has his own political future and White House aspirations to consider. Will Boehner still be able to count on them if he needs to sweeten the deal for Obama or will they begin looking out for themselves and their standing with the right-wingers?
Chances are, Boehner will not risk his job or the anti-tax orthodoxy of his party. He may say he remains willing to seek a comprehensive budget deal in the waning days of this lame duck Congress, but that is about as likely to happen as a gay marriage officiated by Mike Huckabee. That means all of the automatic tax hikes and budget cuts characterized as the "fiscal cliff" will begin to unroll, leaving it to the new Congress in the new year to forge an agreement with the president to roll back the draconian measures before the economy takes a dive.
If they cannot stop a tax hike for the wealthy in January, the more strident conservatives are already identifying the February deadline for raising the debt ceiling as their next point of leverage. Should the president not give them what they want in cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and other non-military programs, the most zealous conservatives appear willing to put the good credit of the United States at risk again. The last time they did that in 2011, the nation's credit rating was downgraded. This time the result could be worse.
Is Boehner willing to go there again or will he take a tougher line with the fire-breathers in his caucus? In recent days, he removed four tea party Republicans from key committees as punishment for going rogue. One of those House members, Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, called Boehner's action "petty" and "vindictive." In a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation, Huelskamp said: "What this says is that dissent will not be tolerated, particularly conservative dissent."