As Speaker John Boehner negotiates on a tax-and-spending deal, he’s counting on fellow House Republicans Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor to provide the cover he will need to pass a plan with a majority of party members.
Ryan, this year’s vice presidential nominee and the Republicans’ top budget authority, and Majority Leader Cantor, known for his sway over the caucus’s anti-tax members, are part of Boehner’s strategy team as he seeks agreement with President Barack Obama.
Without support for a deal from Ryan and Cantor, Boehner -- in his second year as speaker -- risks repeating the anti-tax Tea Party uprising that doomed his 2011 effort to reach a budget deal with Obama.
“The last time around, there was some question about, ‘Is he hunting out ahead of the pack?’” Illinois Republican Peter Roskam said at a Bloomberg Government breakfast last week. “Now, the diagnosis is pretty clear: While he is leading House Republicans, he is not off at some place where House Republicans can’t go or aren’t willing to go.”
Congress and Obama are trying to avert a so-called fiscal cliff of more than $600 billion in tax increases and spending cuts starting in January. Obama insists on higher tax rates for top earners, while Boehner and other Republicans seek significant spending cuts and an overhaul of entitlement programs.
“You can only have one person negotiate an agreement,” House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican and co-chairman of the congressional “supercommittee” that failed to reach agreement on deficit reduction last year, said today on CNBC. “I would hope 99 percent to 100 percent of the members of our conference would back the speaker.”
Ryan and Cantor may gain political benefits from staying close to Boehner during the budget talks: Ryan, of Wisconsin, gets a role in facilitating a potentially major budget deal as he weighs a 2016 presidential run. Cantor, of Virginia, can build an image as a team player as he maps out his next steps as a possible successor to Boehner.
Also on Boehner’s negotiating team are the Republicans’ chief vote-counter, Kevin McCarthy of California, and Michigan Representatives Dave Camp, chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, and Fred Upton, chairman of the Energy and Commerce panel.
All five signed onto Boehner’s deficit-reduction proposal to Obama last week that would raise $800 billion in new tax revenue by eliminating unspecified deductions and credits. Previously, Republicans had insisted that new revenue must come from economic growth spurred by a tax overhaul.
The Obama administration promptly rejected the proposal, which would also raise the Medicare eligibility age and slow Social Security cost-of-living increases. Boehner and Obama met privately Dec. 9 to discuss the dispute over the budget, without disclosing details of their conversation.
“If we’re going to solve this problem, every congressional leader, and more importantly the White House all have important roles to play,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement. He said that when Boehner, an Ohio Republican, talks to the Democratic president, he relies on the “advice and counsel” of his negotiating team.
Ryan’s role as a Boehner adviser in the budget talks will help the speaker sell House Republicans on any deal he negotiates with Obama, said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas.
“He is one of the most respected and trusted Republican conference members amongst Republicans on these issues,” Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican, said in an interview. “The more trusted input from the conference the better.”
“It helps having him sign off on whatever deal comes out,” said Representative Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican and a member of the Tea Party caucus.
Ryan, 42, is a budget and policy wonk with a penchant for drawing charts to drive home key points. As Budget Committee chairman, Ryan has led Republicans’ charge for spending cuts and a Medicare overhaul that would offer federal aid to senior citizens to buy health insurance on the private market.
Ryan, in his second year as budget chairman, is the only panel leader to get a waiver from Boehner to continue leading the committee next year beyond a House-imposed term limit. He was the ranking Republican on the committee for four years while Republicans were in the minority.
A significant budget deal would give Ryan an opportunity to put his fiscal principles into practice.
“He is a leader beyond simple power within the House; he’s a thought leader,” Representative Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican, said in an interview. “That shows you the level of support Paul has, not just within Republican leadership but from the members.”
Ryan won his eighth term in Congress Nov. 6 as he lost his vice presidential race as Mitt Romney’s running mate.
Ryan can give the speaker insight into the budget with a “level of sophistication that not many other members of Congress have,” Roskam said. “He is able to speak with real authority and to very, very quickly understand and give good counsel to the speaker.”
Cantor has supported Boehner’s opposition to raising marginal tax rates and his demand for deep spending cuts.
Still, the two have a tenuous alliance. While Boehner sought during his first year as speaker a consensus approach to solving debt and budget crises, Cantor became a spokesman for anti-tax House Republicans in favor of limited government.
Any budget deal with Obama would need Cantor’s support to insulate Boehner from rebellion in Republican ranks as he experienced during debt-limit talks in 2011 and the votes to avoid a government shutdown.
“The perception is that they are working closely together; they nominated one another for their leadership positions during the conference, which was a very good signal,” Roskam said of Boehner and Cantor. “I think they both have recognized the high value and the premium that our conference pays on leaders that are working together.”
Cantor, 49, also has experience from taking part of deficit-reduction discussions with Vice President Joe Biden last year, lawmakers say.
“He would have a good feeling of what the reaction might be to various proposals,” Representative Harold Rogers, a Kentucky Republican who leads the Appropriations panel, said in an interview.
There is no guarantee that Cantor and Ryan would stick with Boehner if a negotiated deal included higher income tax rates for top earners and a smaller reduction in government spending than they seek. Obama and other Democrats insist that tax cuts for top earners must be allowed to expire at the end of this year. House Republicans oppose tax rate increases for any income level, although some have said they would compromise as part of a comprehensive deal.
The responsibility to cajole enough Republicans to vote for a possible deal will fall on McCarthy, the majority whip. Camp, the Ways and Means chairman, and Upton, the Energy and Commerce chairman, will serve as reality checks on how far Republicans can go in overhauling the tax system and entitlement programs. The two business-friendly Republicans can tell leaders what they can accept in a negotiated deal.
“Certainly, there’s elements of our conference that will be more comfortable with the fact that they are in the room,” Representative Tom Rooney, a Florida Republican, said of Boehner’s adviser team. “If they agree with what is being negotiated, then it would sit better with them.”