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Boehner hopes to avoid blame, gives Dems ultimatum

The optimism about a bipartisan fiscal agreement before the looming deadline is gone.

The optimism about a bipartisan fiscal agreement before the looming deadline is gone. House Speaker John Boehner, instead of making a counteroffer to President Obama's latest proposal, is now giving ultimatums and preemptively trying to avoid blame for the increasingly likely failure.

This afternoon, Boehner appeared before Capitol Hill cameras, spoke for 52 seconds, demanded that Democrats accept his "Plan B" approach, and walked away. After the Speaker insisted that Obama's offer was insufficiently "balanced" -- it relies on accounting that Republicans have traditionally supported -- Boehner said:

"Tomorrow the House will pass legislation to make permanent tax relief for nearly every American -- 99.81 percent of the American people. Then the president will have a decision to make -- he can call on Senate Democrats to pass that bill, or he can be responsible for the largest tax increase in American history."

And with that, Boehner turned on this heel and left. As a practical matter, the Speaker wasn't just walking away from the cameras; he also seemed to be walking away from the entire fiscal talks that he initiated.

Note, it would have been pretty easy to say, as Obama indicated a couple of hours earlier, that he intends to keep working with the president towards a resolution, and he's encouraged by the recent movement on both sides. Instead, Boehner said Democrats can either accept his latest scheme or accept the blame.

As a rule, officials only start preemptively trying to avoid responsibility for failure when they expect to get blamed. For that matter, it's also a reliable rule that those saying my-way-or-no-way are not serious about working out an acceptable compromise.

One question to keep an eye on, which we do not yet know the answer to: after Obama and Boehner got awfully close to a deal over the weekend, did Republicans move away from the bipartisan agreement because Boehner deemed it insufficient or because his caucus told him to deem it insufficient? It's been an ongoing problem in the GOP conference for two years -- their leader is more often taking orders than giving them.

Regardless, if the talks collapse, as now appears likely, it'll be the second time in two years in which Obama offered a congressional Republicans a very generous offer -- to the consternation of the president's own allies, it's basically a center-right package -- on an issue they occasionally pretend to care about, only to have GOP officials refuse to compromise.