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Weiner and Ahmed: John Boehner, Hero? If He Deals on the ‘Fiscal Cliff’

With the conventions over, we now prepare for the real rumble to follow.

The United States economy is floundering, but Democrats and Republicans in Congress have dug in. We could see our national credit rating drop again as it did during the debt ceiling crisis a year ago. This time, the country could actually fall off the “fiscal cliff.”

If the debt ceiling increase is not approved and the tax cuts expire, watch the distance down in our collective jump.

The country has reached this critical stage because of the Budget Control Act of 2011. The law calls for sequestration (automatic cuts) of social and military spending, but because revenue remains too low, the debt goes up regardless. With no additional taxes or program cuts, the sequester shreds 10 percent of programs for the military, as well as education, housing, health, food support for the poor and scientific research.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) can become a hero in American history, a winner of the Kennedy Profiles in Courage – and a hero to Republicans at the same time who see real danger to their control of the House. Here’s how:

If he can round up some support – it does not have to be a majority of Republicans – for a tax reform-spending cuts combination to avoid the sequester and the fiscal cliff, at a time of bipartisan vituperation and obstruction, Boehner will be considered a statesman for the ages.

Democrats could fill in the large part of the majority needed. President Bill Clinton won approval of the North America Free Trade Agreement in November 1993 with a majority of the 234 “yes” votes coming from Republicans (132), and he got enough Democrats (102) to seal the deal. Likewise, Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with a higher percentage of House Republicans (80 percent to 20 percent) than Democrats (61 percent to 39 percent).

In April 2011, Boehner told ABC’s World News: “The federal government’s short on revenues. We need to control spending, but we need to have revenues to keep the government moving.”

Six months later, though, he was turned around by his party’s conservative wing, saying, “I can tell you it’s not in the best interest of our country to raise taxes during this difficult economy.”

In his heart of hearts, even Boehner knows money does not grow on the trees of tax cuts. He knows former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), co-chairman of the Simpson-Bowles Fiscal Commission, made sense saying: “If you want to be a purist, go somewhere on a mountaintop and praise the East or something. But if you want to be in politics, you learn to compromise.”

The House debt ceiling/sequester vote qualifies as one of the most eclectic groupings of ayes and nays the country has ever witnessed. Mortal enemies Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Allen West (R-Fla.) both voted for it, while Reps. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Barney Frank (D-Mass.) voted against it. Ultra-liberal Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) were ayes, while Reps. Ted Poe (R-Texas) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) were nays. These diverse voting positions indicate that compromise on the issue is achievable.

Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), Speaker from 1977 to 1987, often said he built majorities with like-minded lawmakers from both parties. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Speaker from 1995 to 1998, made sure that GOP moderates were consulted. Should Boehner muster the courage to use the bully gavel to save the nation’s economy, his legislative legerdemain would become studied in the history books.

Robert Weiner, a national Democratic strategist, was a senior spokesman in the Clinton White House and for Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) and Ed Koch (D-N.Y.). Sadiq Ahmed is senior policy analyst at Robert Weiner Associates.

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