WASHINGTON — House Minority Leader John Boehner said Sunday he is willing to back tax cuts only for the middle class if that's his sole option — though he emphasized it would be "bad policy" and that he wants Bush-era cuts extended for everyone.
The Ohio Republican, who stands to be speaker if Republicans gain control of the House of Representatives this fall, wants to maintain the lower rates in the top two brackets that affect the wealthy.
His view is a signal that Democratic leaders in the House could have an easier-than-expected path to passage before the November election. But the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to limit debate, will be a tougher task. Three Democrats have said they want all the cuts extended. Democrats control 59 seats.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs welcomed Boehner's "change in position and support for the middle class tax cuts," but seemed skeptical about his sincerity.
"Time will tell if his actions will be anything but continued support for the failed policies that got us into this mess," Gibbs said in a statement.
Boehner told CBS' "Face the Nation" that "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, he said, "I'm going to do everything I can to fight to make sure that we extend the current tax rates for all Americans."
And, he said, "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."
Democratic congressional leaders have been eager to vote on extending the middle class cuts before the Nov. 2 election, and President Obama has tried to prod them to do so. He said at his Friday news conference that lawmakers
should pass what they agree on — keeping the pre-Bush rates for individuals earning less than $200,000 and joint filers making less than $250,000.
"My position is let's get done what we all agree on," he said. "Why hold the middle class hostage in order to do something that most economists don't think makes sense?"
But there's resistance from Republicans, as well as many moderate Democrats, who want all the rates extended.
They offer several arguments: It would be wrong to raise anyone's taxes in a sluggish economy; small business would be hurt; and the wealthiest income-earners would be less inclined to spend and invest.
Boehner offered the small-business argument Sunday. But independent analysts say that only about 3 percent of small business would be affected by increases in the higher rates. Boehner counters that those 3 percent have a disproportionate share of income, and thus would be stymied in their effort to spend and invest.
"You don't want to punish these people at a time when you have a weak economy," Boehner said. "We need them to spend and reinvest."
Top tax rates are currently 33 and 35 percent. If not extended, they would revert to pre-Bush levels of 36 and 39.6 percent.