Politics & Policy

Boehner Briefs GOP on Debt Talks

Is the speaker angry about the negotiations? “I sure as hell am.”

John Boehner told his conference this morning that he’ll head over for another round of debt-ceiling talks at the White House, but he’s not happy about it. “Am I angry about it? I sure as hell am,” he said this morning to members present in the closed-door meeting. “I believe we are missing a great opportunity . . . the agreement we talked about is no longer operative.”

For over an hour this morning, House Republicans discussed the ongoing debt-limit negotiations. Leaving the meeting, members were both exasperated and optimistic — frustrated with the lack of a bipartisan plan as the debt ceiling approaches, but pleased that GOP leaders are consulting with the entire conference.

According to numerous members, House GOP leaders spent the session going over Cantor’s proposed spending cuts. They also underscored the party’s demands for a debt-limit extension: spending cuts greater than the debt limit; caps on future spending; the passage of a balanced-budget amendment; and a stiff aversion to tax increases.

Opening the meeting, Boehner told the conference about his talks with the president, giving them an inside-the-room take — and reassurances that he never pursued tax increases as part of a rumored “grand bargain.”

“Let me be crystal clear on this: At no time, ever, during this discussion did I agree to let taxes go up,” Boehner said, according to a source in the room. “I haven’t spent 20 years here fighting tax increases just to throw it all away in one moment. What I did do was lay out the conditions that would be necessary to make sure there would be no tax hikes.

“As the week went on, it became clear that the president wouldn’t accept those conditions,” he continued. “It became clear that they weren’t serious about structural reforms to the entitlement programs. It became clear that they would only do entitlement reform if it came along with tax hikes. It became clear that their vision of tax reform was to maintain many of the current code’s flawed features. That’s when I walked away.”

Boehner emphasized his support for a balanced-budget amendment, which one House GOP aide tells us was a signal to the conservative groups within the conference that he was taking a hard turn away from the White House and toward them, embracing an initiative that they have long championed. “I want to be clear,” Boehner reportedly said, “I support a balanced-budget amendment, and we’re going to fight for one.”

For his part, Cantor made clear that he did not view the White House as “serious,” since they wanted over a trillion in revenues added to the baseline of any bargain. “We have the same principles, they have not changed,” he told the audience. “If the Democrats continue to insist on tax increases, there is no viable path forward. We are where we are.” He added that he plans to ask the president today to detail his thoughts on the grand plan — on paper.

After the House leaders made their presentations, the floor was open.

First up was Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, a freshman tea-party Republican, who told leaders that he felt much better after hearing the update. Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R., Texas), an old bull, then stood up.

He said he supports balancing the budget — but through proportional cuts, not by simply picking on agriculture. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R., Texas), a vocal conservative, then made clear that he wants to see immediate cuts and reforms, not simply promises to do better in future. Rep. Todd Aiken (R. Mo.), up next, praised Boehner — then turned to his colleagues and noted that, since the White House has not given up much, it was time to walk away, pass spending cuts, and take the balanced-budget amendment fight to the people.

Since Speaker Boehner allotted more time to this session than the usual conference, the questions kept coming. The mood was reportedly calm, but everyone was obviously paying close attention. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R., Ga.) pointed this out, saying that he is not sensing the division he reads about in the newspapers.

One notable questioner came at the end: Rep. Mike Pence (R., Ind.), one of the most high-profile House conservatives, praised Cantor and Boehner, telling the audience that they exposed Obama’s tax-and-spend philosophy. He urged the conference to stick with the leaders and continue to confront the administration.

Rep. Allen West (R., Fla.), a leading freshman, tells NRO that “now that I know” what House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor are pursuing, he feels more comfortable with the GOP’s strategy. “We finally got a lot of the great details that we needed,” he says. “I think it’s going real well.”

Rep. Tom Graves (R., Ga.) says he’s “starting to hear” a sentiment from leadership that is more in line with that of the conservative and freshman members of the conference. “It’s something that we have heard here recently, and we’re starting to hear more of it,” he tells NRO. “Out of today’s discussion it’s clear that the conference is unified behind the need for a balanced-budget amendment.” Graves said the House vote on a balance-budget amendment, scheduled for the week of July 25, would send an important signal to the White House.

Still, not every Republican leaving the closed-door confab was pleased. “Only one word comes to mind right now: chaos,” says one leading House conservative. “There is no plan. Cantor’s cuts would never pass the House, Boehner has walked out and Obama is not serious about anything. There’s nothing.” Another conservative member agreed: “It’s going to be a very rocky few weeks,” he says. “We’re holding, but beyond that, I have no idea what is going to happen.”

Rep. Tom McClintock (R., Calif.) warned that there was still “great concern” among members who felt extremely let down by the budget deal negotiated in April to avoid a government shutdown, which turned out to be full of phony spending cuts and gimmicks. He said bad taste left over from that deal should give leadership added motivation to keep the caucus happy. “I think there’s a general belief that we learn from our mistakes,” he says.

Rep. James Lankford (R., Okla.), a freshman on the House Budget Committee, tells NRO that for many House Republicans, even the Biden cuts, the majority of which aren’t scheduled to go into effect for years, would not be enough to justify an increase to the debt limit. “Among the freshman and among most the people in our conference, the conversation is that the Biden cuts do not help us solve the problem,” Lankford said. “We need to see something structural [like a balanced budget amendment], so we don’t have to keep raising the debt limit forever.”

Another House Republican, however, thinks that Boehner knows exactly what he is doing. “He is slowly drawing Obama out,” the congressman says. “Remember, Boehner knows that this is not just about the debt limit. He is making Obama articulate his positions, now, so if we come back in one week, or in six months, we can read back his comments and start to move reforms forward, perhaps after all of this drama has passed.”

How exactly the drama will pass is as of yet unclear.

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review. Franklin fellow Andrew Stiles contributed reporting.


editors note: This article has been amended since its initial publication.


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