Down to the cliffhanger wire
Will President Barack Obama’s lately impressive popularity ratings hold firm — or even rise — when the fiscal cliffhanger’s final scene is played within the next four days? Will Rep. John Boehner’s inability — so far — to keep fellow Republicans in line cost him his job as House speaker?
Many pundits appear fixated on those political implications of the ongoing impasse in budget talks.
But if both chambers of Congress don’t agree to a deal that the president will sign before year’s end (in other words, very soon), this latest clash of wills inside the Beltway will inflict severe economic repercussions far beyond Washington.
And while the partisan ups and downs of President Obama, Speaker Boehner and other politicians are of significant interest, the onrushing threat of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts — both on a large scale — is of far greater consequence to our nation.
In light of the fiscal-cliff crisis, the president cut his Hawaii vaction short last night and returned to the White House. So when the House and Senate reconvene today, the stakes of renewed budget negotiations between Democrats and Republicans will be much higher than who gets the blame — or the credit — for their outcome.
After all, it’s called the “fiscal cliff” because America’s economy is bound to fall into a deep dive if that agreement isn’t made in time.
It’s hard to imagine either party’s leaders being foolish — or selfish — enough to let stubborn ideology block the needed accord.
Then again, it’s hard to accept that they have already put this crucial task off for so long.
It’s not as if the cliff’s approach is a surprise. Those mandatory tax hikes and sequestered spending reductions were part of the debt-ceiling compromise reached in August 2011. The only way to avoid them is with legislation that clearly will have to include some new tax hikes on high-income Americans to satisfy Democratic demands — and at least some lip service to spending cuts at some point down the road to satisfy GOP demands.
President Obama and congressional Democrats have somehow been winning the public-relations battle, despite his decision to ask for much more new tax revenue than he sought last year. A Gallup poll released this week showed that 54 percent of respondents approved of the president’s handling of the fiscal-cliff negotiations, while Speaker Boehner and congressional GOP leaders received only 26 percent approval on the same issue. And 68 percent of those polled said they favor compromise over strict adherence to principles in the budget talks.
Of course, it’s much easier to draw public support for the general notion of “compromise” than for these likely elements in a looming fiscal-cliff compromise: eliminating the payroll-tax cut that Americans have enjoyed for the last two years, and removing some popular income-tax exemptions.
And it’s much easier to duck hard fiscal choices when you have gone since April 2009 without passing a budget — as the Democratic Senate has under Majority Leader Harry Reid. In contrast, the Republican House has passed budget plans in each of the last two years under Speaker Boehner.
Unfortunately, even if a last-ditch fiscal-cliff deal is reached, difficult choices will again be postponed about how to shore up unsustainable entitlement programs and get our soaring national debt under control.
Speaker Boehner suffered serious embarrassment last week when he had to scrap plans for a test vote in support of his fiscal-cliff “Plan B” because it lacked sufficient backing in his own party.
After that setback, the speaker still gamely insisted that Congress could yet find common ground in time.
But pressed on that point by a reporter, Rep. Boehner replied: “How we get there? God only knows.”
At this dire point, though, every Republican — and every Democrat — in Washington should know that letting us go over that fiscal cliff is not a responsible option.
And as the clock keeps ticking us ever closer to 2013, both parties should know that there can be no lasting political victory in failing to reach a fiscal-cliff deal.