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The unserious posturing over the "fiscal cliff"

News Analysis

When they leaked it to reporters on Thursday, House Republicans deemed the White House offer to avert the "fiscal cliff" to be a "joke," an "insult" and "a complete break from reality." The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, let it be known that he "burst into laughter" when he heard the plan, which included $1.6 trillion in tax increases and $400 billion in future, unspecified spending cuts.


"It was not a serious proposal," House Speaker John Boehner said Friday.

There is some truth to that. Mr. Obama's initial ask goes far beyond what could ever pass the GOP-led House; it reflects Mr. Obama's budget priorities, which come nowhere close to the priorities of House Republicans. It does not reflect an effort to compromise.

Yet Boehner's criticism of the president's proposal also applies to himself and his colleagues. Neither side has offered up a plan that comes close to what could realistically pass both houses of Congress. Boehner, in fact, has offered no plan at all: When he is pressed by reporters on his position, he says to look to the House Republican budgets to understand what his side is seeking. When Rep. Tiberi, R-Ohio, was asked about the apparent lack of a GOP "fiscal cliff" offer on Medicare, he responded, "we passed a Medicare plan in our budget."

Republicans are thus arguing that the controversial budgets spearheaded by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., are effectively their proposal. And the Ryan budget, with its deep cuts to entitlements and other spending, has the same chance of getting through the Senate as the Obama proposal has getting through the House: Zero. If the Obama proposal is a "joke," then the Republican proposal is the exact same joke.

Here's the reality: Despite the fact that the "fiscal cliff" deadline is just a month away, the two sides have yet to get serious about coming to an agreement, at least publicly. (It's anyone's guess what's happening behind closed doors - despite leaks from both sides that have fed speculative news stories, there is no evidence that either side has yet made major concessions.) They are effectively at the beginning of negotiations, with each player posturing in an effort to improve his position before the real deal-making begins.

Both sides know that the positions they are publicly insisting on are not serious. Any talk about a willingness to be conciliatory - Boehner said today that "Republicans are not seeking to impose our will on the president," while the president said "all of us are going to have to get out of our comfort zones" - simply does not square with their current position in the "fiscal cliff" negotiations.


House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday criticized Boehner's posturing as a "tactic." She's right. But she left out the fact that Mr. Obama's offer is a tactic as well. Think of it this way: You want to buy a car that is worth $5,000. You offer $1,000. The seller counters with $20,000. That's about where things stand at the moment in the "fiscal cliff" fight.

This is not a new script. It's how Washington works. Whether it was the battle over health care or standoffs over government shutdowns, partisans have regularly staked out ostensibly immovable positions before (in most cases) finding their way to compromise. What does it take to get there? For starters, a deadline. In Washington, a month is a relative lifetime. Lawmakers tend not to get down to serious business until the moment of truth -- in this case going over the "fiscal cliff" -- is nearly at hand. (In this case, the deadline has been blurred somewhat by the fact that some lawmakers say they are willing to go over the "cliff," in part because it's actually more of a slope.)

There are signs of hope: Boehner amended the House schedule next week so that all business will be finished by 3 p.m. Wednesday. That will get much of the rank and file out of town and allow Boehner to focus on working with the White House to move toward compromise. William Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the key to potentially moving forward is simply bringing the players together, away from distractions. He pointed to the near-agreement between the president and Boehner 18 months ago on a "grand bargain" as evidence.

"I think that one of the things that we're seeing so far is the limits of trying to do this with news leaks and public events," he said. "I don't think that any of those will make any difference. Ultimately this will be resolved by a small number of people in the same room exploring the possibility of an agreement and maybe - maybe - figuring out a way to make it stick."