December 12, 2012

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Yesterday, Barack Obama and John Boehner had a private conversation about the status of the fiscal cliff talks, with each side making new offers. It was reportedly tense.

This morning, Dana Bash tweeted she had learned why it was tense: “Dem source tells me a big reason last night’s POTUS/Boehner call was tense: GOP counter included permanent extension of tax cuts for wealthy.”

A Dem source familiar with the conversation confirmed to me that this is correct. But the GOP leadership is denying it. A GOP leadership aide emails: “Our goal, as Boehner has made clear repeatedly and publicly, is a framework for comprehensive tax reform. (which would make that claim moot).”

In other words, Boehner couldn’t have asked for the Bush tax cuts on the rich to be made permanent, because tax reform later will likely impact both revenues (via the closing of loopholes and deductions) and also tax rates.

Asked about this, the Dem source reiterated that Boehner had indeed demanded that the Bush tax cuts be made permanent. He even added that the offer had been made on paper.

So what happened? The question worth pursuing, it seems to me, is whether Boehner specified to Obama that he will never support tax rates going above their current level on those over $250,000, at any point in the future, whether as part of a temporary deal or as part of future tax reform — that this won’t ever be allowed to happen. (Indeed, tax reform could even lower rates.)

That would be consistent with what Boehner has said in the past — he won’t budge on tax rates for the wealthy, only on loopholes and deductions. But if this what was said again in their private discussion, it confirms that Boehner still isn’t budging from that position, and sees it as a permanently non-negotiable point. If true, of course, that all but certainly means we’re going over the cliff.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.