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May 28, 2015

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Cliff or no cliff: Who stands to gain in court of public opinion?

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Carolyn Kaster / AP

President Barack Obama acknowledges House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio while speaking to reporters in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, as he hosted a meeting of the bipartisan, bicameral leadership of Congress to discuss the deficit and economy.

House Speaker John Boehner’s admission Thursday night that he couldn’t pull together enough votes to pass his “Plan B,” and his subsequent dismissal of the House until after Christmas, means there are now only three ways this whole fiscal cliff fiasco could go down.

• President Barack Obama and Sen. Harry Reid could successfully insist the House hold a vote on their bill to raise tax rates on incomes above $250,000, and hope Boehner can persuade a few dozen Republicans to vote yes alongside Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats.

• Obama could tweak and resubmit his fiscal cliff offer to Boehner, in the hopes of bringing a slightly more even-handed coalition of House Republicans and Democrats together.

• Or we could just go over this cliff.

However it turns out, though, one thing seems certain: After Boehner’s swing and a miss with the House Thursday night, Reid’s comparative political stock stands to rise.

“Everybody’s talked about Boehner and Obama cutting this deal, but Harry Reid’s the third man,” said Eric Herzik, a UNR political scientist. “And Reid’s advantage is, he can deliver votes.”

Reid and Boehner have been locked in a protracted arm-wrestling contest over fiscal policy for the past two years. For that entire duration, the crux of their policy war has been a dispute between the role of tax revenues versus spending cuts in enhancing economic solvency and deficit reduction.

But this week, that became a war within the Republican Party.

The week opened with Obama making an offer to hold tax rates steady up to $400,000 in income, inching slightly closer to the Republicans from his initial insistence that cut tax rates only be frozen up to $250,000.

Boehner, knowing and telling his Republican caucus that after the election they would have to compromise and make a deal, bet that he could strengthen his bargaining hand by pushing for a bill to hold tax rates low up to a million dollars, even over a presidential veto. After all, Democrats had supported a similar measure before, and had spent the entire election cycle talking about “millionaires and billionaires” paying their fair share. It was to them Boehner’s bill addressed tax changes.

Had Boehner been able to muster support in his caucus for such a seemingly reasonable move, he might have been able to strengthen his bargaining hand with the president heading into a final week of negotiations. So he scheduled the vote.

But instead, he came up too short to see it through.

“The House did not take up the tax measure today because it did not have sufficient support from our members to pass,” Boehner said in a statement Thursday night.

In defense, he reverted to the Republicans’ regular stance on taxes versus spending cuts, arguing that the House, with its previous votes to extend all Bush tax cuts combined with a Thursday evening vote to divert sequestration cuts away from the military, had done its duty.

“The House has already passed legislation to stop all of the Jan. 1 tax rate increases and replace the sequester with responsible spending cuts that will begin to address our nation's crippling debt,” Boehner added. “The Senate must now act."

But that isn’t where Boehner started the night. And so Reid’s team, which always maintained that raising tax rates for the wealthy was an essential part of avoiding the fiscal cliff, is all but claiming a psychological win already.

“It is now clear that to protect the middle class from the fiscal cliff, Speaker Boehner must allow a bill to pass with a combination of Democratic and Republican votes,” Reid’s spokesman said in a statement.

If Boehner does turn to Democrats in the House for support, it would be a significant political victory for them. Though in past crises, Boehner has willingly solicited Democratic support — e.g. for 2011’s debt ceiling deal — he has never had to make the overture before proving he has support within his own party for his counteroffer.

“[Walking away] is a message to both Obama and to his conservative troops,” Herzik said. “Boehner’s saying look, these are the people I have to deal with to put this together, so Barack you gotta give me more. But his message to his troops is, you guys want to go down this path? Fine. I’m going home. You work it out.”

But even if Boehner proves unwilling to turn to Democrats — it is a potentially risky move for a guy who has to retain his Speakership in a few weeks — going off the cliff won’t necessarily rub off badly on Reid. Whereas in the past, he was Boehner’s counterpart at the negotiating table, this time, he isn’t directly in the line of fire to get blamed for the failure of negotiations.

“Reid’s strengthened because he doesn’t have to spend any political capital; this is just Obama and Boehner,” Herzik said. “Harry Reid can call a news conference and criticize folks, but has he had to do any heavy lifting so far? No ... he gets to enter the next round completely fresh.”

Polls also show the public will blame Republicans for an economic crash, a fact that Republicans who were ready to vote for Boehner’s Plan B says reveals the true intent behind what they see as Democrats’ unwillingness to bend.

“Comfortable in the belief that the House will be blamed if we go over the fiscal cliff, the president and the Senate majority can stick to their bargaining position,” said Nevada Rep. Mark Amodei, who planned to vote with Boehner Thursday night. “Let’s quit misrepresenting the facts to the people of America. It has become increasingly clear that a slow walk over the fiscal cliff is the preferred outcome for the White House and the Senate majority.”

But cliff or no cliff, if public opinion is swinging in their direction, there is little incentive for Democrats to abandon their positional advantage and acquiesce to the Republicans’ demands as they have done in lame duck sessions past (i.e. 2010).

With the president’s favorability numbers higher than they’ve been since 2009, an inauguration on the horizon and four more years of his presidency to go, there’s too much else for them to lose by backing down.

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