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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson September 13, 2010

Is Robert Gibbs right to call John Boehner's stance on tax extensions a "change in position"?

House Republican Leader John Boehner, made headlines on the Sept. 12, 2010, edition of CBS' Face the Nation with his comments about a limited extension of George W. Bush-era tax cuts.

During the show, host Bob Schieffer asked the Ohio Republican to elaborate on his approach to extending a series of tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush that are set to expire at the end of this year. President Barack Obama and key Democratic leaders are seeking to renew the tax cuts for Americans earning below $200,000 (for single earners) and below $250,000 (for married couples). By contrast, Republican leaders, including Boehner, have consistently called for renewing the tax cuts for all taxpayers, regardless of income. (Some Democrats have said they would side with the Republicans, at least for the next year or two.)

Schieffer pressed him on whether he would be willing to vote for the more limited Democratic approach. "If the only option I have is to vote for some of those tax reductions ... I’ll vote for them," Boehner responded. "But I’ve been making the point now for months that we need to extend all the current rates for all Americans if we want to get our economy going again and we want to get jobs in America."

Schieffer then made several attempts to confirm that Boehner really meant that he could support the Democratic version if it came to that. Boehner said that he could. "Bob, we don’t know what the bill is going to say, all right?" Boehner said. "If the only option I have is to vote for those at ($250,000) and below, of course, I’m going to do that. But I’m going to do everything I can to fight to make sure that we extend the current tax rates for all Americans."

The White House pounced on Boehner's comment and suggested he had flip-flopped.

In a one-sentence statement issued later that afternoon, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, "We welcome John Boehner's change in position and support for the middle class tax cuts, but time will tell if his actions will be anything but continued support for the failed policies that got us into this mess."

We thought it would be worth checking whether Boehner's statement represented a "change in position."

Boehner's staff doesn't dispute that prior to the Face the Nation appearance, Boehner hadn't gone so far as to say he'd support a Democratic bill that would not extend the cuts for the wealthiest Americans. So there is some truth to the White House's characterization of the statement as a "change in position." Previously, he hadn't mentioned that possibility; suddenly, he did. On some level, that is a "change of position."

But it leaves out a lot of context we think is important. In the interview, it actually took four questions by Schieffer to elicit a conciliatory answer from Boehner toward the Democratic proposal. In his answers to those first three questions, Boehner made clear that he favored extending the tax cuts for all brackets.

Boehner said in response to Schieffer's first question, "I think raising taxes in ... a very weak economy is a really, really bad idea. And most economists would agree with that. And I just think that if we’re going to extend the tax cuts for some Americans, why don’t we extend ... the current tax rates to all Americans, ... and get rid of some of the uncertainty that is out there, so that small businesses can plan and reinvest in ... their business and the new economy."

And in the same response that made so much news, Boehner reiterated, "I’ve been making the point now for months that we need to extend all the current rates for all Americans."

Indeed, Boehner has been consistent about that. In a high-profile economic address before the City Club of Cleveland on Aug. 24, 2010, Boehner said, "President Obama should work with Republicans to stop all of these job-killing tax hikes." And in a Sep. 8, 2010, press release in response to an economic speech by the president, Boehner advocated a "two-point plan for immediate, bipartisan action on jobs and spending," with one of the two points being "a two-year freeze on all current tax rates."

We'll add that the second part of Gibbs' statement -- that "we welcome John Boehner's change in position and support for the middle class tax cuts" -- also raised a question in our mind.

If Gibbs is merely thanking Boehner for his longtime, consistent support of "middle-class tax cuts" then we would have have no quarrel with his description. But coming immediately after Gibbs' expression of "welcome" for "Boehner's change in position," we feel that a reasonable person might conclude that Boehner had previously opposed middle-class tax cuts and now supports them. And suggesting that would be inaccurate, since Boehner has not wavered in his support of extending the middle-class portion of the tax cuts.

So we think it is a stretch for Gibbs to say Boehner has changed his position. It's very clear that Boehner still supports extending the tax cuts for people of all incomes. He was asked how he would vote under a very specific scenario and he answered the question. Yes, Boehner added a new aspect to that position -- that he's willing to support the other extensions even if they don't cover the wealthiest Americans. But in the same interview and elsewhere, Boehner has repeatedly said he supports extending the tax cuts for all Americans. That's sounds like a lot of consistency with a bit of change thrown in. So we find Gibbs' claim Barely True.

Featured Fact-check

Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.

Our Sources

John Boehner, interview on CBS' Face the Nation, Sep. 12, 2010

White House, statement by press secretary Robert Gibbs, Sep. 12, 2010

John Boehner, remarks on jobs and the economy at the City Club of Cleveland, Aug. 24, 2010

John Boehner, "Boehner Sets Out Two-Point Plan for Immediate, Bipartisan Action on Jobs and Spending" (news release), Sep. 8, 2010

E-mail interview with Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, Sep. 13, 2010

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Is Robert Gibbs right to call John Boehner's stance on tax extensions a "change in position"?

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