Is Boehner Pushing Off a Fiscal Cliff Deal to Save His Own Skin?

Rep. Chris Van Hollen said Speaker John Boehner is purposefully pushing off a fiscal cliff deal to save his own political skin.

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Congressional leaders, such as House Speaker John Boehner, are expressing confidence they can reach a deal with President Barack Obama to head off the "fiscal cliff."
Congressional leaders, such as House Speaker John Boehner, are expressing confidence they can reach a deal with President Barack Obama to head off the "fiscal cliff."

While the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee said this morning that a deal has to be cut by Christmas in order to avoid the fiscal cliff, he added that House Speaker John Boehner may be planning to push the country over that pecuniary precipice in order to save his own political skin.

"I'm getting increasingly concerned that one reason the speaker is deciding to, I think, string out these discussions is that he wants to wait until January 3 when the election for speaker takes place and he's concerned that any agreement that he reaches," if it lacked majority support in the House GOP conference, "could undermine support for him in his caucus and make it more difficult on January 3," Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen told reporters this morning. "So I would hope that he would put the interests of getting an agreement before House Republican politics."

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel E-mailed that the assertion was "nutty," adding that Boehner "is doing everything possible to avert the fiscal cliff and protect American jobs right now. The White House just refuses to get serious about solving our country's spending problem."

Asked specifically about the notion of only bringing legislation to the floor which had the support of a "majority of the majority" in the chamber—also known as the "Hastert rule" for J. Dennis Hastert, Boehner's Republican predecessor as speaker, who followed it when he wielded the gavel—Steel said that Boehner "has never used that phrase" (either "majority of the majority" or "Hastert rule"), an indication that the speaker is reserving himself some maneuvering room for a final deal.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the fiscal cliff.]

I'm skeptical of Van Hollen's assertion for a couple of reasons, the first being that even getting re-elected on January 3 doesn't protect Boehner from being de-elected on January 4 or any other time over the next two years. According to House Rules, any member can make privileged motion (which means it has to be considered) vacating the speakership. The rule is obscure but Boehner would know it well from the aborted coup against then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1997.

Second, Boehner's knocking four conservatives off of plum committees was pretty clearly a sign of the speaker consolidating his position ahead of a deal that will be both necessary but also likely to displease his conservative base.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

None of this is to suggest that Boehner may not face a challenge, and one which could cause him headaches and make his party look inept. But if he feels like he has to push off a deal to save his speakership, he'll need to go well past January 3.

How far? Van Hollen also said that in order for something to reach the president by year's end, a deal would need to be agreed up on by Christmas. That's because even when a deal is reached there is legislative gruntwork to be done in terms of actually writing the bill and voting on it. Whatsmore, he said, if Congress wants to avoid mucking up the Christmas holiday with legislative work, it would have to be done by the end of this week. "I don't assign a high probability to the end of this week," he said. "I assign a high hope about the end of this week, but not necessarily a high probability."

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