It was no surprise that the lordly Senate approved a creatively enhanced tax deal on Monday. As the bill travels to the House of Representatives today, the road gets trickier in the House cloak rooms and on the House floor, where the real hand-to-hand combat over the Bush tax-cut extension begins in earnest. Look not only to the Democratic caucus, where Jeremiahs and martyrs prepare to resist tax cuts for the rich, but also look to the Republican minority, where the resistance is more stealthy but no less unblinking.
While our TV wise men are transfixed by the crucifixion of the progressives and the emasculation of Nancy Pelosi's majority, the story in the shadows is that House Republicans are naturally suspicious of anything the White House favors, and are ready to bolt from their leadership at the first sign of blinking.
Ask yourself why the new propaganda minister of the Republican House—the cocky cowboy Jeb Hensarling—sent a private citizen—Representative-Elect Kristi Noem of South Dakota—out on the frontlines to face the cameras in support of the Bush tax-cut deal this past weekend? Is it perhaps because the GOP leadership team is frightened to speak in public in support of a deal that they are unsure they can deliver? What does the opinion of the Annie Oakley of the Tea Party matter? Noem cannot be whipped; Noem cannot vote; Noem's ambitions are as worthwhile as pixie dust in a twister.
"What Boehner is doing is taking someone who is not a member, and hiding behind her," remarks a Republican skeptic, "so she can tell everyone how good the deal is. It shows you how weak and craven the leadership is. She's set up to take the fall, if this thing fails."
In other words, what does Republican Minority Leader John Boehner know that keeps him from taking to the stage himself and announcing victory? Well, here's a clue: When Minority Deputy Whip Kevin McCarthy took time out from the green rooms of his mind to do some real work last week and whip the grizzled old minority members, the result unnerved the leadership. Boehner is so far from having the votes for the deal that he does not even have commitments from stooges like Hensarling, who offered, midweek, that he was not "thrilled" by what he had heard so far.
The Old Bulls are too surly ever to be thrilled again; the young and the restless have not forgotten how Boehner tried to lead them into the TARP pit two years ago; and the Tea Party freshmen class is meaningless, worthless beeswax—just a bunch of cute, clueless kibitzers until January 5.
The Old Bulls are too surly ever to be thrilled again…and the Tea Party freshmen class is meaningless, worthless beeswax—just a bunch of cute, clueless kibitzers until January 5.
Boehner, Congressmen Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan "are all calling around to ask for support on the deal," observes a doubter. "Everyone says, 'What deal?'"
There are hot voices in the Republican punditocracy who complain that the "framework" agreement announced abruptly by President Obama last week is not acceptable. Charles Krauthammer chided the deal as a repackaged, gargantuan second stimulus package that will help Obama get reelected—the GOP doing the work for the Democratic Tom Sawyer.
There are also complaints about the estate tax portion of the framework, which, on January 1, is set to rise from 0 percent to 55 percent on estates valued at $1 million or more. The Democrats, for their part, demand a rate of 45 percent on estates of $3.5 million or over. The so-called Republican-negotiated compromise would put it at 35 percent on estates of $5 million and upward.
But why should the House Republican minority submit to Democratic flagellation and give an inch before the end of the year, when, after Jan. 5, the GOP can write the bill completely? Ryan hints at the scurrying rationalizations of the Boehner team when pressed on whether he will accept a compromise on the estate tax, "The answer is no, we're not interested in changing this deal. We're interested in passing this through."
There is also the nostalgic part of the deal, a tribute to earmark feasts of yesterday, as Harry Reid loads up the Senate version like a drunkard's Christmas tree—weighing it down with favors for NASCAR, Hollywood, rum and ethanol—and this is before the bill moves to the House, where it will attract even more eccentric (read expensive) ornaments. The deficit hawks pontificate on camera while in the wings the tradesmen of the Congress fill districts with holiday cheer.
John Boehner has always been a fragile, uncertain leader, and his elevation to Speaker-elect has made him more hesitant, tediously more effusive, and defensively more dependent on the bonding of the Old Bulls and the adulation of the puppies. Why does John Boehner ask other Republican members of Congress to obey him blindly, and swallow a bill that is at best a half-baked bacon pie in December, if, by January, the House will put the country on a crash diet?
"The pork will decimate the party's credibility with the base and the Tea Party," judges a conservative voice of the Senate version of the bill, even before the House hog farm opens for business.
After a recent Washington dinner with members of the Tea Party class, who are dreamy-eyed at the significance of their big GOP class for the next Congress, a financial journalist remarked, "They have no idea how it works. In two years they'll be standing in line for the goodies like everyone else at election time."