WASHINGTON House Speaker John Boehner, the man who spent significant portions of the last Congress shuttling to and from the White House for fiscal talks with President Barack Obama that ultimately failed twice to produce a grand bargain, has come around to the idea that the best negotiations are no negotiations.
As the president and congressional Democrats have tried to force Boehner back to the table for talks to head off the so-called sequester set to take effect today, Boehner has instead dug in deeper, refusing to even discuss an increase in revenue and insisting in his typical colorful language that it was time for the Senate to produce a measure aimed at the cuts.
"The revenue issue is now closed," Boehner said Thursday, before the House left town for the weekend without acting on the cuts and a Senate attempt to avert them died.
Boehner said the dispute with Democrats amounted to a question of "how much more money do we want to steal from the American people to fund more government."
"I'm for no more," he said.
While the frustrations of congressional Democrats and Obama with Boehner are reaching a fever pitch, House Republicans could not be more pleased with their leader.
"We asked him to commit to us that when the cuts actually came on March 1, that he would stand firm and not give in, and he's holding to that," said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. "I think Friday will be an important day that shows we're finally willing to stand and fight for conservative principles and force Washington to start living within its means. And that will be a big victory."
Boehner began the new Congress on shaky footing, a seemingly chastened man. Speculation swirled that he might not be able to hold on to his speakership (he did), and he was forced to pass two major pieces of legislation a last-minute New Year's Eve deal to avert automatic tax increases, and a Hurricane Sandy relief bill without the support of the majority of his conference through the help of Democratic votes.
On Thursday, Boehner again moved a piece of legislation through the House without majority support from his rank and file the Violence Against Women Act.
The result showed that conservatives seem willing to give him some running room on social issues as long as he holds firm on the fiscal front.
Amid clamoring from his more conservative members, Boehner eventually reaffirmed his own conservative principles, abandoning even the pretense of reaching a bipartisan solution on the spending cuts. He argued that the president had gotten his desired tax hikes in the earlier showdown. And he promised no more one-on-one negotiating sessions meetings with Obama, whose political fortitude he questioned publicly and privately.
Boehner was set to meet today at the White House with the president and bipartisan congressional leadership but made clear Thursday that the ball for now was solely in the Senate's court.
The stalemate was foreshadowed at the Republican retreat in Williamsburg, Va., in January. Boehner and his leadership team promised that in exchange for passing a short-term debt ceiling extension, they would force the Senate to pass a budget, as well as allow the spending cuts to go into effect.
"I think he realized the president of the United States was using him as a tool for his own benefit and was not actually in a partnership with him, and he also realized that we in the House were not happy with what was coming out of those negotiations," said Rep. Raul R. Labrador, R-Idaho. "We were pretty blunt with him and the entire leadership team that we have to feel like we have a plan and a vision, and we're following up on that plan and that vision."
Although Obama's public events in recent days have seemed intended to highlight what he says will be the effect of the spending cuts and to shame Republicans into negotiating a deal, House Republicans have stood their ground. They say they are done negotiating until the Senate passes its own spending cut legislation. (House Republicans have passed two alternative spending cut bills, although both were in the last Congress).
For Boehner, the consequences of allowing the sequester to take effect could be less damaging than the consequences of going back on his promise not to allow any new tax revenue.