Speaker of the House John Boehner

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Boehner works to contain defections

  • Article by: JONATHAN WEISMAN
  • New York Times
  • December 12, 2012 - 10:54 PM

WASHINGTON - Speaker John Boehner moved Wednesday to maintain Republican unity on deficit reduction talks as lawmakers on the far-right openly chafed at his leadership and some pragmatists pressed for quick accommodation on tax rate increases on the rich.

Other lawmakers and aides to the speaker maintained that Republicans, both in the leadership and in the broader conference, remain unified behind Boehner as he tries to reach a deal with President Obama to stave off a potential fiscal crisis less than three weeks away.

Without a deal, hundreds of billions of dollars in automatic tax increases and spending cuts will kick in next month, possibly dragging the nation back into recession.

But the House's most conservative members vowed to vote against any deal that raises taxes, openly challenging the speaker's authority. Rep. Jeff Landry of Louisiana, defeated in a race decided last week, blamed the speaker for creating the perilous fiscal position the nation finds itself in.

A senior Democrat suggested that Boehner was dragging his feet. "The biggest impediment right now is the speaker's ability to get a decent number of Republican votes for an agreement," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who is the lead Democrat on the House Budget Committee. "I'm getting increasingly concerned that one of the reasons the speaker is deciding to, I think, string out these discussions is that he wants to wait until Jan. 3, when the election for speaker takes place."

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, called the assertion "nutty."

The Republican dissenters at this point represent a small portion of the House Republican Conference, but their public anger is striking. It also reflects a storm of criticism Boehner is facing on conservative talk radio and Internet outlets, in part for moving toward the president on taxes, in part for embracing a purge that removed four Republicans who consistently dissented from leadership positions of committees.

In another twist, some of the House's most uncompromising conservatives joined ranks with its most ardent liberals in embracing a ride into the fiscal unknown next month. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said the spending cuts to military and domestic programs would "break the mold and get some real cuts for a change."

Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., compared fears of a fiscal crisis to hysteria over the end of the Mayan calendar later this month. "A bad deal is worse than no deal at all," she said. "What is being made of this fiscal cliff is too much."

Republican leadership aides dismissed such talk as the incessant grumbling of a group that has made dissent a sport. But they warned the Republican conference that Boehner needs a unified party behind him if he is to hold out for a conservative deficit deal. Concern on his right flank may be keeping him from moving toward a deal. His latest counterproposal did not move an inch off his position of $800 billion in revenue increases over 10 years, achieved through an overhaul of the tax code.

Even before conservatives started speaking out of turn, pragmatists were pressing the leadership to pass a Senate Democratic bill to extend expiring middle-class tax cuts, which would most likely ensure that tax rates would rise on the rich. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., urged his party to accept tax rate increases on the top 2 percent of households now, then battle Obama on spending early next year.

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