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News Opinion Editorial

Is Boehner bluffing?

Nice try, John Boehner.

On Wednesday, the House speaker announced a willingness to work with the newly re-elected President Barack Obama on a long-term solution to the nation's budget problems that avoids January's "fiscal cliff" — and if you didn't listen too closely, it sounded like he was even willing to budge on the GOP's no-new-taxes dogma. In reality, though, Mr. Boehner was more or less recapping the House's position from 2011, the last time he and Mr. Obama engaged in serious discussions on the issue. He said the House Republican Caucus is open to the idea of increased revenues if it can be accomplished without raising tax rates, and, indeed, by lowering them while closing loopholes or limiting deductions.

But it was not clear whether he meant that the GOP caucus is open to using reality-based methods to calculate the effect of these tax changes, or whether he and his fellow Republicans would insist on applying the principles of voodoo economics: the discredited supply-side theory that increased economic growth as a result of tax cuts will more than make up for their cost. It didn't work in the1980s or the 2000s, but congressional Republicans heretofore have insisted that it is inviolable economic law.

In the spirit of post-election reconciliation, we will give Mr. Boehner the benefit of the doubt. He said nice things about wanting the president to lead and for all parties to approach the process not as Republicans or Democrats but as Americans. It's entirely possible that he was wary about going too far out on a limb policy-wise before having a chance to corral his members and explain to them the new political reality they face.

That reality is this: President Obama was stunningly vague about his plans for a second term, except for one thing — a promise to increase taxes on the well-to-do. He could not have been clearer about that, and his opponent, Mitt Romney, could not have offered a sharper contrast on the issue. The voters picked Mr. Obama. Moreover, 60 percent of voters think taxes should be increased as part of a deficit-reduction plan, according to exit polls. Mr. Boehner — whose party lost seats in the House and Senate — may claim a mandate otherwise, but that doesn't make it so.

Democrats need not be obsessed with making sure the rates for the top tax brackets go back to precisely what they were during the Clinton administration. But they do need to stick to their guns on the principle that whatever tax and deficit deal they make include a proportionally larger sacrifice from the wealthiest Americans than from the poor and middle class, who would suffer most from draconian budget cuts. If that can be accomplished by lower tax rates and a simpler tax code, so be it.

Likewise, Republicans need to acknowledge that their vision for a radical restructuring of Medicare and Medicaid is not supported by voters. That was another clear contrast between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney. Certainly, Democrats need to accept the need for reforms to the entitlement programs that are some of the biggest drivers of our budget problems. Measures to reduce their rate of growth will have to be part of a budget deal, and that's not a matter of ideology but of math. But there are plenty of ways to do that without altering their fundamental promise to the American people.

The best-case scenario for the nation is that the president and leaders of both parties in Congress sit down immediately to hammer out a provisional deal that avoids the fiscal cliff. If good-faith negotiations to work out the details of such important reforms take longer than the seven weeks remaining in the year, it may be entirely appropriate to simply delay the automatic Jan. 1 spending cuts and tax increases for a few months. But Republicans need to come to the table ready to make a deal.

If not, they should consider the alternative. President Obama is not running for office again in his life. If he wants to, he can go on vacation in Hawaii until Inauguration Day and let the nation go over the fiscal cliff. That's certainly not our first choice for how these negotiations play out — such a tactic would doubtless throw the markets into turmoil and risk stalling an economy that seems to be picking up steam. But Republicans should ask themselves whether they are in a better position to make a deal now or in January, when the Bush tax cuts are no longer the law of the land. If Mr. Boehner's soft words on Wednesday were a bluff, he should bear in mind that he's playing cards with someone who has little to lose.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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