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GOP Lacks Leverage, but It's Still Got Spin

You have to hand it to congressional Republicans. They lost seats in both chambers last month; they're holding a lousy hand at the negotiating table over the "fiscal cliff"; and one of their conservative standard bearers has decided to bail for a cushy think tank four years before his term is up. But boy, do they know how to spin the Beltway press corps.

Consider how Politico today treated one possible outcome of the negotiations over taxes, raising the top marginal rate to 37 percent instead of the 39.6 percent it will revert to with the scheduled end of the Bush tax cuts at the end of this year:

If Republicans split the difference between current top rates — 35 percent — and Clinton-era rates — 39.6 percent — Obama will get his tax rate increase on the rich, and Republicans can say they stopped him from hiking rates as far as he originally wanted. Some Republicans think it’s not such a bad idea to press Obama to accept a 37 percent top rate, getting him to agree to massive entitlement reform, spending cuts and tax reform. That way, Republicans can fold a losing hand and go home for Christmas.
After all, the GOP is facing an emboldened president, a legislative fight with seemingly no end, a Democratic Senate and the prospect of getting blamed for massive tax increases and spending cuts. So some lawmakers think a 2 percent tax increase is better than a 5 percent hike. There’s a big caveat in all of this: Republicans would insist on pairing the tax increase with major entitlement changes and spending cuts, according to a dozen lawmakers from across the ideological spectrum who were interviewed for this story. 

So: Republicans would manage to substantially limit the increase in the top rate scheduled under current law, but this would be a concession, in return for which they would expect President Obama to agree to all of their demands: "massive entitlement reform, spending cuts and tax reform." Oh, and this deal would still be a big reach for Republicans, one they would be willing to support only out of a surfeit of holiday-season magnanimity. OK.

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Politico is hardly alone in this framing. Here's how the Washington Post reported on the possibility of raising rates for the top bracket in its front-page story today:

An agreement to raise the top tax rate above the current 35 percent would mark a major concession for a Republican Party that has made opposition to higher tax rates a touchstone for more than two decades.
The step would come on top of what was already a significant compromise for the GOP: an offer earlier this week to increase tax revenue by $800 billion over the next decade. That offer involved generating new revenue by closing loopholes and ending deductions for top earners, not by increasing rates.

Again: no "concession" from Republicans is needed for the top rate to rise above 35 percent -- it is due to happen even without such selflessness. As for their prior "significant compromise" on the $800 billion in extra revenue: that is the very sum that Boehner offered in last year's "grand bargain" talks with the president, back when Republicans had far greater leverage than they do now.

Meanwhile, there's the New York Times framing Boehner's weak negotiating position vis a vis the president as a sign of his...unprecedented "strong backing" from his troops

As Mr. Boehner digs in for a tense fiscal confrontation with President Obama, the strong embrace from a broad spectrum of the rank and file may empower him as he tries to strike a deal on spending cuts and tax increases that spares the country a recession, without costing Republicans too much in terms of political principle.

With the election results ensuring another four years with an empowered adversary in the White House, and a growing docket of polls that show voters ready to blame Republicans for a failure to avert the so-called fiscal cliff, many House Republicans appear to view Mr. Boehner with the same sort of respect that adult children award their parents for the sage counsel they ignored in their younger days.

Should his support hold up, Mr. Boehner, who faced a frequent battering from his own members over the last two years as he tried to seal deals on various spending agreements, would be better able to negotiate from a point of relative Republican unity. And, most important, he would be viewed as able to sell a deal to his once-fractious caucus.

So, the reason that rank and file Republicans would be more willing than last year to go along with a deal Boehner cuts with the president is because ... they realize that their side is in such a tough spot that they don't have any real alternative this time. And this is a sign of Boehner's strength? I imagine that Robert E. Lee enjoyed the "unity" of his troops in the early spring of 1865. That didn't mean he was in a strong position.

What to make of these generous depictions of the Republican plight? There's the usual Washington-media imperative for even-handedness, of course. But there's also a more circumstantial explanation: the White House is in such a more favorable position this time around than it was in last year's negotiations that it may not see much point in working the refs. But it may want to keep an eye on this, and start making its case. The polls may be on its side for now, but if this curious definition of "concessions" and "compromises" catches on, the landscape could start to shift.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis