Behind John Boehner’s Bluster as He Shifts Blame for the Sequester

The House Speaker is punching back, but Eleanor Clift says he’s really admitting defeat on the sequester.

Win McNamee/Getty

Frustrated that House Republicans are seen in surveys as the main obstacle to resolving the stalemate over sequester, Speaker John Boehner used some unusually blunt language Tuesday morning to lay the problem at the Senate door.

“We have moved the bill in the House twice,” he said Tuesday morning as President Obama continued his public relations blitz with a visit to a military installation in Newport News, Va. “We should not have to move a third bill before the Senate gets off their asses and begins to do something.”

The beleaguered House speaker could use a refresher course in constitutional prerogatives. Passing two bills in the last Congress doesn’t count; each Congress has to start anew. And his insistence that the Senate go first is an admission that the House is incapable of finding a solution to the fiscal impasse.

“By turning over his prestige, power, and initiative to the other body, saying, ‘Let the other Republicans take the pain,’ he is surrendering the constitutional power given to the House,” says Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego. “He is admitting failure, defeat.”

Boehner is also opening the door to the only potential compromise left, a model that worked in the New Year’s Day deal to avert the fiscal cliff: a bipartisan, 70-plus vote in the Senate that forces the House’s hand. Boehner would then rely on Democrats to provide the winning margin that he can’t muster with his party. It can’t make Boehner happy to admit he can’t muster a winning hand, says Popkin. “He’s acknowledging the complete fracture of the caucus.”

The odds are long that GOP leaders in the Senate will provide Boehner’s salvation this time, not with the top two Republicans, Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn, facing reelection in 2014 and fearful of alienating the party’s base.

With Congress down to the wire on sequestration, Obama spoke at a Newport News shipbuilding facility Tuesday about the jobs that will be lost. He was accompanied by Virginia Rep. Scott Rigell, the first of what the White House hopes will be a growing number of Republicans who deplore sequestration and would vote for what Obama campaigned on—a balanced package that would reform entitlement programs in exchange for closing tax loopholes that benefit wealthier taxpayers. Virginia’s Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, is among those on the hot seat, torn between loyalty to the Tea Party and representing his district and his state.

Republicans say Obama is abandoning his role as a leader by continuing to campaign for his agenda. They disparage his trip to a Navy shipbuilder as a “road show.” Of course it’s a road show, a legitimate use of a president’s bully pulpit.

The question is whether his argument is seen as credible and can galvanize the public behind a mix of tax revenue and spending cuts. With no real movement by the Republicans, Obama is playing the hand he’s got—which for now means greater influence outside the Beltway than within the confines of Capitol Hill.

There’s blame to go around, but is it equivalent? Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, co-author of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, points out that Obama has always said revenue must be on the table when entitlement cuts are considered. “Every outside commission and inside gang has said the same thing. And all of us know that increased revenues will be enacted at one point or another. Republicans are in denial. There is no equivalence between the parties.”

The GOP says Obama got his $600 billion tax increase in the New Year’s Day deal, yet the overall agreement struck was a money loser for the Treasury, with a bevy of tax extenders both parties wanted and 98 percent of the Bush tax cuts left in place. The GOP over the weekend claimed legendary journalist Bob Woodward as a trophy. In a Washington Post op-ed piece, Woodward sided with Republicans who accuse Obama of moving the goal posts in his demands for revenue.

Obama is paying the price for the GOP’s inability to compromise, and he’s also the benefactor, presiding over an uncharacteristically unified Democratic Party while the GOP is imploding.

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Popkin, who has worked in Democratic presidential campaigns and is the author of The Candidate: What It Takes to Win—and Hold—the White House, sounds downright frustrated.

“I don’t give a damn who got us here. Just get us out of this mess,” he says. On that score, he is probably speaking for most Americans.