By Russell Berman - 07/18/12 11:37 PM EDT
Democrats and Republicans have traded hostages.
In the span of a year, the two parties have reversed roles in accusing one another of holding the U.S. economy captive to a major policy demand.
Now it’s the Republicans’ turn to cry bloody murder. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Wednesday accused Democrats of threatening to “tank” the economy by saying they would let taxes rise for all Americans at the end of the year and allow deep defense cuts to go through if the GOP did not agree to a tax hike on the wealthy.
“Now Democrats are threatening to tank our entire economy and harm our national security if they don’t get a massive tax increase on small-businesspeople,” Boehner told reporters after a closed-door House Republican Conference meeting.
The Speaker escalated his criticism of President Obama and his attitude toward business. “I think the president’s attack on the private sector in America is exactly what’s wrong with this administration,” Boehner said. “[He] doesn’t give a damn about middle-class Americans who are out there looking for work; what he’s trying to do is distract the American people in order to win his own reelection.”
The Speaker’s words drew a sharp retort from White House press secretary Jay Carney, who called the criticism “astounding” at his daily briefing. Helping the middle class has been the “principal preoccupation” of Obama’s presidency, Carney said.
“All of his domestic initiatives are focused principally on the middle class,” Carney said. “It’s the reason he’s running for reelection.”
The back-and-forth underscored the newfound urgency that Republicans have brought to the so-called “fiscal cliff” — the year-end combination of expiring tax rates and spending cuts — that economists warn could throw the nation into recession.
With press conferences, hearings and the release of supportive economic studies, Republicans have mounted an offensive aimed at forcing Democrats to negotiate on the $55 billion in defense cuts — known as the sequester — set to take effect in January as a result of the 2011 Budget Control Act. They have also sounded even louder sirens about the impact of allowing the Bush-era tax rates to expire.
With Democratic support, the House on Wednesday passed legislation on a vote of 414-2 to require the Obama administration to provide, within 30 days, details of how it would implement the required defense and domestic spending cuts. Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) were the two lawmakers who voted against it.
Democrats have also warned against the defense cuts, but they say Republicans must agree to revenue increases as part of a deal to replace the sequester and that Obama would veto any continuation of current tax rates for the wealthy.
And they have noted that the Republican congressional leadership agreed to the law that set the cuts in motion. The cuts were triggered by the failure of the 12-member “supercommittee” to agree to a more specific program of $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. “The Budget Control Act was strong medicine, but it was bipartisan,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and a member of the supercommittee, told reporters Wednesday.
Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, delivered a similar charge this week.
“They [Republicans] imposed a fiscal discipline, and now they don’t want to live with the fiscal discipline,” Hoyer said Tuesday. “They want to have it both ways.”
Boehner deflected a question on Wednesday as to whether the hard-line Democratic stance on taxes is any different from Republican demands for spending cuts to accompany a debt-limit increase.
He said that when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress in 2009 and 2010, they “didn’t have the votes” to pass the president’s plan to raise taxes on income above $250,000. When Obama eventually agreed to extend all of the tax rates, Boehner said, it was because the economy remained weak in late 2010. “The economy isn’t any stronger today, and the president ought to get serious about providing real leadership instead of spending all of his time out campaigning,” Boehner said.
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel later argued that the situations were different because it would have been “impossible” to increase the debt ceiling without spending cuts and reforms, despite a Democratic push for a clean increase. “The Speaker always said we would increase the debt limit, and we did,” Steel said.
One Republican lawmaker, Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), said the rhetorical volleys were merely Washington being Washington in an election year.
“I think everybody knows that this is just what you do in pregame negotiations,” Kingston said. “No one in this town is required to be consistent. It doesn’t matter who you are or what the issue is.”
Amie Parnes and Mike Lillis contributed to this report.