Boehner Plays a Weak Hand Well

His 'Plan B' is an imperfect but responsible attempt to resolve the looming tax increases.

Since the election, House Speaker John Boehner has emerged as that Washington rarity, the adult in charge. To keep the country from plunging over the fiscal cliff, he has dealt with a president uninterested in compromise while leading a GOP House caucus understandably reluctant to concede much to that president. 

Mr. Boehner has denied President Obama the easy target he thought he had in the postelection GOP. The speaker has undercut the White House's strategy of attacking congressional Republicans as do-nothing troglodytes and kept his party unified in a situation with no easy or obvious answers. 

Demanding that Mr. Obama extend all the Bush-era tax cuts worked for Republicans in December 2010, when the president had just been dealt a huge setback in midterm elections and was worried about his re-election chances. Now, after winning a second term, Mr. Obama appears content to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire in 11 days, confident he can blame Republicans and spend the next two years attacking them for the tax hike (while happily spending the new revenue). 

Whether that gambit would succeed is uncertain, but surely Republicans would spend much of next year on the defensive, trying to explain why they let taxes increase on everyone just to protect higher-earning Americans (those with incomes over $178,650, where the top two income-tax brackets begin) from paying more.

The Obama White House leaked this week that the president and Mr. Boehner were on the cusp of a deal. In truth, the speaker this week concluded that Mr. Obama is still not serious about finding a reasonable solution to avoid the cliff. 

Shortly after the election, Mr. Boehner made the first move by acknowledging that Washington could draw additional revenue if it also cut spending. Since Republicans control only one lever in Washington (the House) while Democrats have the White House and the Senate, he wanted to do all he could to bend the debate in as conservative a direction as possible.

Mr. Boehner followed a week later with a revenue number ($800 billion) and the hope—shared by his colleagues in the GOP House leadership, who meet regularly to discuss options—that Mr. Obama would follow the recommendation of his own Simpson-Bowles commission to cut $3 in spending for every $1 raised in new revenue. There was some reason for optimism: During his re-election campaign, Mr. Obama had pledged "$2.50 in spending cuts for every dollar in revenue increases. 

The White House responded to Mr. Boehner by simply offering its fiscal 2013 budget—the budget that was unanimously rejected by both houses of Congress last spring—wrapped in new paper and with a holiday ribbon. 

The White House has moved since then, but not meaningfully. Mr. Obama won't agree even to $1 in cuts for every $1 of revenue. His latest offer calls for $1.3 trillion in new revenues paired with the vague promise of $930 billion in future budget cuts. Mr. Obama's offer also wipes out the $972 billion in cuts agreed to in the July 2011 debt-ceiling deal and adds at least $80 billion in new stimulus spending.

In response, Mr. Boehner has offered "Plan B." Tax rates on annual income above $1 million would rise to 39.6% from 35%, but lower rates on everyone else would become permanent and the Alternative Minimum Tax would disappear.

Mr. Boehner's thinking is that preventing increases on more than 99% of taxpayers could help Republicans escape from a battle they cannot win. Better for the GOP to show the president rabid for more taxes and spending, and then to pivot toward a debate about spending. Here Republicans will hold the upper hand: Mr. Obama needs the House to approve his debt-ceiling increase (likely by March). He won't get it without spending cuts.

As of this writing, Republican leaders plan a House vote on this imperfect measure Thursday. So far the White House and congressional Democrats have rejected "Plan B," despite Democratic support for exactly this concept in May of this year. Talk about hypocrisy.

It's impossible to know how this Washington drama will end, but Speaker Boehner has played a weak hand adroitly. He's been reasonable, even creative, and so far kept his caucus behind him. He will rightly be judged on what he eventually agrees (or doesn't agree) to. But so far he's shown leadership that has been lacking elsewhere in Washington—especially at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

A version of this article appeared Thursday, December 20, 2012, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Boehner Plays a Weak Hand Well and online at WSJ.com.