When will lawmakers get serious on the "fiscal cliff"?

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News Analysis

House Speaker John Boehner wants Americans to know that House Republicans are serious about dealing with the "fiscal cliff."

"This week we made a good faith offer to avert the fiscal crisis and that offer included spending cuts and reforms and included additional revenue," he said Wednesday. "Frankly, it was the balanced approach that the president's been asking for. Now we need a response from the White House. We can't sit here and negotiate with ourselves."

But here's the thing: The "good faith offer" was little more than a general statement of priorities that lacked the specifics necessary to actually get to a deal. It was no more of an attempt to find common ground than the White House's initial proposal, which everyone in Washington was well aware had no chance of passing the House.

Boehner and the rest of the House Republican leadership laid out their offer in a letter to the president earlier this week. It said Republicans would cut a total of $1.2 trillion in spending, but it does not actually say what would be cut. The letter broadly says that the cuts would follow those put forth in what was called "the Bowles plan," a reference to Democrat Erskine Bowles, who quickly put out a statement saying that the letter does not represent his beliefs. (Republicans were referencing testimony that Bowles gave to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction last year. That testimony represented Bowles' understanding of the midpoint between the two sides at the time; he noted Monday that "circumstances have changed since then.")

Let's give House Republicans the benefit of the doubt and assume they are calling for the cuts articulated last year by Bowles. His testimony called for roughly $600 billion in Medicare savings, in part from raising the Medicare eligibility age, $300 billion in other discretionary spending cuts, and $300 billion in cuts to other mandatory spending programs. 

Despite GOP claims that they represent a middle ground, there is simply no reason Democrats would agree to these cuts. Here's why: If the nation goes off the fiscal cliff, it faces $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts split between domestic spending and military spending. Republicans are effectively proposing to keep the cuts but focus them entirely areas that Democrats want to protect: Domestic spending and other entitlements. Meanwhile, under the GOP plan, there would be no cuts to defense programs -- the area Republicans want to protect. Why on earth would Democrats agree to a deal in which all the cuts are made to their priorities when they could simply do nothing and let the pain be shared by both sides?

That's not the only problem. When it comes to new revenue - aka, additional money coming into the government - Boehner has set a target of $800 billion. This is not insignificant: The offer has already prompted howls from some on the right who oppose any new revenue. But it is also less than substantive, since Boehner declines to say how he would make the cuts -- he merely says they should come through "pro-growth tax reform that closes special-interest loopholes and deductions while lowering rates." Does that mean getting rid of the mortgage interest deduction? Capping charitable deductions? The letter doesn't say.