In a recent interview with Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal, House Speaker John Boehner claimed that President Barack Obama "lost courage" last summer when the two men were trying to hammer out a Grand Bargain that would reduce government entitlements and raise revenues to shrink the federal deficit.
But in his new book, "Showdown: The Inside Story of How Obama Fought Back Against Boehner, Cantor, and the Tea Party" (William Morrow, March 20), David Corn, Washington bureau chief of Mother Jones magazine, MSNBC analyst, and a Huffington Post contributor, reveals that Boehner had courage problems of his own.
The book, based on interviews with White House insiders and Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, is a dramatic behind-the-scenes account of the decision-making that occurred within the Obama White House following the disastrous-for-Democrats 2010 mid-term elections. It chronicles the president's lame-duck session victories, the Egyptian and Libyan crises, the bin Laden raid, and the frustrating budget and debt ceiling clashes, detailing crucial White House meetings and negotiations sessions. Ultimately, the book shows just how Obama got his groove back in time for the 2012 campaign.
In the exclusive excerpt below, Corn discloses why Boehner ran away from the Grand Bargain the first time. Here's the set-up: In June 2011, as White House and GOP congressional negotiators were trying to work out a debt ceiling accord, Obama and Boehner met secretly to discuss a big deal that would yield $4 trillion in deficit reduction and about $800 billion in revenues, with one of these meetings occurring during the July 4th holiday weekend at the White House.
After the July 3 meeting between Obama and Boehner, Lew and Nabors had begun haggling with Jackson and Brett Loper, Boehner’s policy director, about the details of a big deal. They concentrated on two critical issues: the trigger and the basic shape of the tax reform (which would supposedly generate $800 billion in revenues).
Boehner’s office sent the White House a proposed tax reform plan, which Obama, Geithner, Sperling, Reed, and others concluded was not sufficiently progressive. The White House sent back a response and expected a quick counteroffer. They seemed to be on their way.
But as Boehner’s aides were negotiating with the White House, members of the House Republican caucus grew uneasy about the prospect of Boehner coauthoring a grand compromise with Obama. They realized that meant yielding on taxes. The Tea Party Republicans had come to Washington to smash the status quo, not cut deals.
“They were giving Boehner a helluva time,” a senior House Republican staffer recalled. “They weren’t interested in deal making. They didn’t want to recognize this was divided government. They were willing — eager — to see what would happen if they refused to compromise.”
Several of Boehner’s closest allies in the caucus came to the speaker’s office. They knew Boehner was ready to compromise with Obama on revenues and contemplating Obama’s proposal to de couple the upper-income Bush tax cuts as the trigger.
“We told him, ‘You’re too far over the tips of your skis,’ ” one of these lawmakers later said.
Boehner, they feared, was pursuing an agreement that his members couldn’t stomach, and that meant his speakership was in jeopardy. Cantor and his allies, they told him, were whispering that Boehner had gone RINO — that much-dreaded insult in conservative circles: Republican In Name Only.
“Cantor,” one of these members subsequently maintained, “is a palace-intrigue guy. He was just waiting for a bus to hit Boehner so he could say, ‘Oh, I wasn’t planning on being speaker, but if I have to be. . . .’ ”
Boehner’s allies told the speaker he was at risk of losing not 40 to 60 Tea Party members of the caucus, but 150 members. If that occurred, his speakership would be kaput. Cantor would lead — or benefit from — a revolt. There was not much percentage in reasoning with the Tea Party wing and their allies in the leadership, Boehner’s friends explained to the speaker.
“The young guns really believe that if everything blows up, there will be a Republican president, a Republican House, and a Republican Senate,” one of these GOP lawmakers subsequently said, “and they’ll be able to do whatever they want.”
On July 9, a Saturday, Obama’s senior aides — Lew, Sperling, Nabors, Reed, and others — were waiting to hear back from Boehner’s office. In the afternoon, the White House put out a call to these top officials: Daley wants you in his office as soon as possible. As Sperling headed toward 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he was excited. He thought this meant a deal was close, and he started pondering what final details had to be confirmed in the next twenty-four hours.
When Sperling and others arrived at Daley’s office, Nabors handed out a statement Boehner had just released: “Despite good-faith efforts to find common ground, the White House will not pursue a bigger debt reduction agreement without tax hikes. I believe the best approach may be to focus on producing a smaller measure, based on the cuts identified in the Biden-led negotiations, that still meets our call for spending reforms and cuts greater than the amount of any debt limit increase.”
Boehner had called Obama at Camp David to tell him he was no longer pursuing the grand bargain.
Obama and his aides were stunned and puzzled. Who ends negotiations this way? Senior staff had been exchanging paper and proposals. They were working it out. Yet Boehner had jumped ship without notice. It was bizarre.
Obama’s aides did not know that Boehner had been told that Cantor and other Republicans were waiting to pounce on him.
But there was a clue as to what was transpiring on the other side. That morning, the conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal had warned Boehner against cutting a deal with Obama. The editorial focused on the possible trigger of decoupling the Bush tax cuts and suggested that Obama had outmaneuvered Boehner. Why, the editorialists asked, would Boehner agree to a possible tax hike before tax reform was done? Wouldn’t that provide Democrats the incentive to stall tax reform and grab the tax-cut win that had so far eluded them?
The article, which hinted that Boehner’s speakership would be on the line if he green-lit such a deal, was laced with so many details from the negotiations that someone within the House Republican leadership must have orchestrated it. It was a sign that Republicans on the inside were gunning for Boehner.
“There was a feeling that the speaker was going further than his caucus would,” a senior House Republican staffer subsequently explained. “We heard rumors a tax increase was involved. I know my boss made clear to him the conference would not support that.”
White House aides sensed that Boehner had hoped to sneak a deal past the Republican caucus. At one point, a Boehner staffer had said to White House aides, “We can do better on revenues as long as you don’t describe what we’re doing as revenues.” That told the Obama advisers a lot.
The next evening, Obama had all the congressional leaders back to the White House. He told them he was willing to go far to get the big-cross deal, noting he’d accept a gradual rise in the eligibility age for Medicare.
“If not now, when?” he asked.
There’s not enough time, Boehner said — reversing his position from three days prior.
Reid showed his irritation. The Republicans, he complained, had backed out of one deal after another. He ticked off the instances. Senate Republicans who had cosponsored a bill to set up a congressional deficit commission voted against it after Obama endorsed it. It was a Republican who had run away from the Gang of Six talks. Cantor had left the Biden negotiations. And now Boehner had turned tail on the big deal.
Cantor noted that the grand bargain breached his and Boehner’s obligation to their caucus. In other words, they couldn’t sell any package that contained revenue increases.
McConnell barely said a word, but Kyl suggested that they focus on the Biden group savings that did not make “fundamental changes” in Medicare. He was trying to claim the cuts the Biden gang had discussed, sidestepping the fact that they were only provisional without accompanying revenues.
Obama reminded the Republicans it had been their idea to deal with deficit reduction at the same time as the debt limit.
Now, he said, they were running scared. “It was a completely unproductive meeting,” a Democratic staffer recalled.