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Boehner comments show tough road ahead for "fiscal cliff" talks

Speaker of the House John Boehner speaks to the press after a bipartisan meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama to discuss the economy in
Speaker of the House John Boehner speaks to the press after a bipartisan meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama to discuss the economy in

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - New comments from top Republican lawmaker John Boehner slamming health care reforms illustrate how hard it will be for Washington to reach a deficit reduction deal when talks resume next week, analysts said on Thursday.

President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress will begin negotiating next week on a plan that could avert tax hikes and spending cuts set to begin in January that economists worry could push the U.S. economy over the "fiscal cliff" and into recession.

Boehner did not explicitly mention the "fiscal cliff" talks in an opinion piece published in the Cincinnati Enquirer on Wednesday. But he argued the nation cannot afford the costs of Obama's 2010 health care reform law, given the United State's sluggish economy and massive $16 trillion debt.

"That's why I've been clear that the law has to stay on the table as both parties discuss ways to solve our nation's massive debt challenge," said Boehner, who is a key player in the talks.

Boehner's comments show it won't be easy to reach a deal on the thorny tax and spending issues, said Greg Valliere, chief political strategist at Potomac Research Group in Washington.

"There's an enormous gulf between the two parties on the details," he said, noting it is still possible that Obama and Congress may agree by January to broad spending and tax measures, and then take months afterwards to iron out details.

"Plunging off the cliff, then passing a tax cut in January that excludes the rich -- is still a very live option," Valliere said.

"NEGOTIATING STRATEGY"

Analysts said Boehner's renewed critique of the health care law is designed to appeal to Republicans in the House of Representatives who have voted more than 30 times to repeal it.

The law aims to extend health coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans starting in 2014. It also contains measures designed to contain the costs of America's $2.6 trillion healthcare system, the most expensive in the world.

Republicans had promised to repeal the law, which they call "Obamacare", if they won the November presidential elections.

But Obama won, and Democrats kept their majority in the Senate. Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the reforms.

Boehner's comments were "not constructive" for the fiscal talks ahead because there is little chance negotiations will lead to changes in the health care law, said Jim Kessler, senior vice president for policy at centrist think-tank Third Way.

"This is a complete non-starter and a clumsy starting point for negotiations," Kessler said.

Larry Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia, said he thought Boehner's comments seemed like a "bargaining chip" for the talks ahead.

"Just as President Obama is insisting that taxes must go up for everyone making $250,000 or more, the Republicans are saying that Obamacare is on the table," he said, noting he expects the income trigger for tax increases will end up being much higher and that the healthcare law will stay untouched.

After the election, Boehner acknowledged in an ABC News interview that "Obamacare is the law of the land", although he also said the law had to be "on the table" as legislators work toward balancing the nation's budget.

Julie Barnes, director of healthcare policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said the costs associated with getting the new health reforms in place pale in comparison to the much-larger costs of tax and spending issues before lawmakers.

"Small businesses and large businesses are not going to view Obamacare as what's really causing the problem for their competitiveness. The problem is health care costs," Barnes said.

(Additional reporting by Rachelle Younglai and Richard Cowan; editing by Andrew Hay)

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