WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner signaled on Friday he's still open to negotiations with President Barack Obama on avoiding across-the-board tax increases set to hit taxpayers Jan. 1, but sounded pessimistic about reaching a grand deal with the president.
"How we get there, God only knows," Boehner told a Capitol Hill news conference just hours after his rank-and-file handed him a stunning tactical defeat.
The Republican leader spoke the morning after he was forced by his members to abandon legislation that would have raised taxes on incomes above $1 million. "We didn't have the votes to pass it," Boehner said glumly.
In the aftermath, Boehner said any deal with the president to avoid the looming "fiscal cliff" would require more compromise by Obama and greater involvement of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the minority leader, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
"I'm interested in solving the major problems that face our country," Boehner said. "And that means House leaders, Senate leaders and the president are going to continue to have to work together to address those concerns."
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who stood by Boehner's side, said, "We stand ready to continue in dialogue with this president to actually fix the problem."
Boehner dismissed suggestions that the embarrassment late Thursday night over the legislation would cost him his speakership, second in line to the presidency.
"While we may have not been able to get the votes last night to avert 99.81 percent of the tax increases, I don't think — they weren't taking that out on me," he said. "They were dealing with the perception that somebody might accuse them of raising taxes."
Obama has said he will press ahead with Congress in search of a deal and that the two sides are relatively close to a long-sought budget bargain. But Boehner on Friday depicted an impasse.
"I told the president on Monday these were my bottom lines," Boehner said. "The president told me that his numbers — the $1.3 trillion in new revenues, $850 billion in spending cuts — was his bottom line, that he couldn't go any further." Boehner and the White House differ on how to classify key elements of Obama's latest offer, particularly whether to count interest savings on the national debt as a spending cut. The White House says Obama offered $1.2 trillion in spending cuts, matched by $1.2 trillion in higher taxes.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said on Thursday that Obama has "never said either in private or in public that this was his final offer. He understands that to reach a deal it would require some further negotiation. There is not much further he could go, because after all, unlike his counterparts in this negotiation, he has already gone halfway on both sides of the equation."
Boehner's attempt to retreat from a longstanding promise to maintain Bush-era tax rates for all was designed to gain at least some leverage against Obama and Senate Democrats in the fiscal cliff endgame. Thursday's drama was a major personal defeat for the speaker, who retains the respect and affection of his tea party-infused conference, but sometimes has great difficulty getting them to follow his leadership.
What Boehner called his "Plan B" was crafted to prevent tax increases set to kick in Jan. 1 on virtually every taxpayer. But it also would have provisions that would have let rates rise for those at the upper income range — a violation of long-standing Republican orthodoxy that triggered opposition inside the party.