A Confused Boehner Pin Balls on Fiscal Policy

Question: Why is House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, making so little sense these days on fiscal policy?

Answer: He’s leading a House Republican caucus that is badly split on such matters, and he’s trying to satisfy everyone at the same time.

Consider the events of recent weeks, culminating in the confusion of the past few days:

House Republicans rallied this spring behind the sweeping budget plan of Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan that would turn Medicare into a voucher program, convert Medicaid and Food Stamps to block grants, and reduce the size of government to levels not seen since the 1950s. Ryan said his plan was less a budget than a “cause,” and Republicans muscled it through the House.

Chastised by senior citizens over the Medicare proposal during last month’s congressional recess, however, some of the more pragmatic House Republicans returned to Washington with a different outlook.  House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Ryan himself backed away from the Medicare plan, saying the time wasn’t right.

That bow to political reality, however, won House Republicans no friends among Tea Party members who did so much to elect Republicans to Congress last fall. On Monday, Tea Party leaders held a news conference in Washington in which they blasted Boehner and Ryan for their propensity toward moderation and threatened to unseat Republicans who abandoned the party’s core principles.

That may explain why Boehner, hours later at the Economic Club of New York, called for spending cuts of “trillions, not just billions” in government spending as his cost of helping to gather the votes to raise the federal debt limit, which Congress must do in the coming weeks to avoid a federal default.

As for those trillions, he said, “they should be actual cuts and program reforms, not broad deficit or debt targets that punt the tough questions to the future.”  And they should reflect “honest conversations about how best to preserve Medicare.”

Today, however, Boehner shifted direction again, appearing noticeably fuzzy at a news conference. While, according to Politico, he said that he didn’t want Congress to resort to “phony” spending caps or “phony” deficit targets, he offered no time frame for achieving the “trillions” in savings.

Moreover, while Boehner had said in New York that the spending cuts should reflect “honest conversations about how best to preserve Medicare,” his aides said today that his position on Medicare was not firm.

Confused? You’re not any more confused than Boehner, who’s trying to find a way to navigate the deep divides within his caucus.

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