Talk about nervous Republicans. Just when the GOP seemed to have Nancy Pelosi on the ropes on the key issue of taxes, just when Democrats were panicking in advance of November's elections, just when the White House seemed unsure of what to do next -- just as all of that was happening, John Boehner mixed things up by appearing to break with fellow Republicans on the Bush tax cuts.
Like other Republican leaders, Boehner supports extending all the cuts, including those for people making more than $250,000 a year. Most Democrats want to extend the cuts for taxpayers below $250,000, but to raise taxes on the higher group. On Sunday, Boehner indicated he could live with the Democrats' position.
"If the only option I have is to vote for some of those tax reductions, I'll vote for them," Boehner told CBS. "If that's what we can get done. But I think that's bad policy."
At that moment, GOP activists across the country wondered: Did Boehner misspeak? Did he inadvertently wander off the tax-cutting reservation?
No, he didn't. It was intentional. Talks with people in the Boehner circle suggest the minority leader's statements were carefully thought out and planned. The goal was to avoid being jammed by majority Democrats into voting against a Democratic bill that would extend all the Bush cuts except those on the highest earners. Nobody wanted to see the headline: GOP VOTES AGAINST TAX CUTS FOR MIDDLE CLASS.
"Boehner doesn't want to get caught in a trap by saying that if he doesn't get tax cuts for one group, he's not going to allow tax cuts for anybody," says one knowledgeable GOP strategist. "If he can get tax cuts for the middle class, he's going to take it. This isn't going to be one of those situations where he's going to cut off his nose to spite his face." Another person close to Boehner says the statement was "intended to undermine the Obama talking point that Republicans are holding middle-class tax cuts hostage."
Boehner's position, as his allies see it, forces the battle in the GOP's direction. Since everyone agrees on the middle-class tax cuts, they say, the debate will become whether Democrats can be pushed to go along with the cuts for people above the $250,000 line, which Republicans argue will affect the most successful small businesses -- and employers -- in the country.
But the problem with Boehner's concession is that, at the moment he spoke on CBS, more and more Democrats were already coming over to the Republican position supporting all the cuts. Several moderate House Democrats were urging Speaker Pelosi to extend all the cuts. In the Senate, five Democrats want all the cuts extended.
"A growing chorus of Democrats ... are coming round on this issue," says Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. "They oppose the tax hikes the administration is proposing."
Boehner's words seem to undercut that position. If the top Republican in the House is willing to accept only some of the cuts, which means raising taxes on top earners, why shouldn't moderate Democrats?
Now, those Democrats will have to make a decision. Perhaps they will use Boehner's remarks as cover to go along with Pelosi and the White House. Perhaps they will be afraid to vote for a tax increase for anybody in this terrible economy.
The most immediate effect of Boehner's statement was to suggest that Republicans are divided on one of their most important issues. After House GOP Whip Eric Cantor released a statement saying he will do everything in his power "to stop President Obama and Speaker Pelosi from raising taxes on working families, small business people, and investors," the White House pounced on the appearance of GOP division.
"Disarray = Boehner vs. Cantor, Boehner vs. McConnell & McConnell vs. McConnell," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a Twitter message. "Why hold middle class tax cuts hostage to these disagreements?"
"Republicans are unified," Boehner shot back, "to boost our economy, we need to stop ALL tax hikes and cut spending now."
What happens next is not at all clear. Before Boehner's interview, momentum in the House seemed to be shifting in favor of the Republican argument that it's wrong to raise taxes on anybody in a recession. Now, that could change. In the end, it's likely the Republican bulwark will once again be the Senate, where the GOP and moderate Democrats will be able to stop any tax increases, no matter what happens in the House.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.