Fiscal Cliff Talks Turn Into a Game of Chicken
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The Fiscal Times
November 30, 2012

The critical negotiations over a way to avoid the fiscal cliff are fast turning into a game of chicken.

Shedding his optimistic disposition, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, summoned reporters Thursday afternoon to declare it was time that President Obama and the Democrats revealed how they intended to cut spending and slow the rate of growth of Medicare and other costly entitlements as part of a Grand Bargain of deficit reduction.

“I’ve got to tell you, I’m disappointed in where we are and what has happened in the last couple of weeks,” Boehner said.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other Democrats immediately scoffed at the speaker’s complaints and insisted it was time the Republicans revealed how much in new tax revenues they were willing to put on the bargaining table.

“The president has got a budget that he’s submitted to Congress that has revenue and it also has spending cuts,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. “Where’s Speaker Boehner’s plan?” 

Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, called the speaker’s complaints “disingenuous”and added:
“We all know that we’ve already done a trillion dollars in discretionary domestic spending cuts, and the challenge is to move forward on the revenues.” 

Far from seeking common ground to avert a year end calamity of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts that could trigger another recession, the Democrats and Republicans appear to be trying to escort each other over the fiscal cliff.  Senior administration officials had a testy meeting yesterday with Boehner and other Republicans that further soured the negotiations, and Obama is hitting the road today for Philadelphia to try to rally voters to his side in the negotiations.

While both sides fear being blamed if a deal isn’t reached before the end of the year, a new poll from CNN/ORC shows  that 45 percent of the public would blame congressional Republicans – even though the Democrats control the Senate – while just 34 percent would blame the president.

“Look, the White House clearly realizes that the longer they wait, the more pressure there’s going to be on the Republicans,” said Stan Collender, a budget analyst and expert. “So they’re not rushing to get anything done. And the White House learned from the negotiations over the debt ceiling in August 2011 not to negotiate with itself. So this is a definite change in tactics that seems to be frustrating Republicans to no end.”

There is general agreement that the government should commit to about $4 trillion in savings over the coming decade, which would be achieved through a combination of spending cuts, tax increases and reforms of the federal tax code and entitlement programs. But there is almost no unanimity on how to get there.

Obama’s road map would include $1.6 trillion of new tax revenue and roughly $350 billion to $400 billion of additional savings from Medicare and other health insurance programs. The rest of the savings  would largely be achieved by taking credit for the $2.1 trillion of long term savings agreed to in August 2011 as part of a deal to raise the federal debt ceiling by $2.1 trillion to its current $16.4 trillion level, “ according to Van Hollen.

“The president’s plan has that combination of revenue and cuts,” he said. “Speaker Boehner keeps talking about revenues. We’ve never seen a proposal on revenues. Have you?”

Republicans have signaled that they might go along with $800 billion of additional revenue – the amount that Boehner and Obama discussed as part of their secret debt ceiling talks in 2011—while insisting that the Democrats commit to far greater spending cuts.

The differences flared up yesterday after administration officials conferred behind closed doors with Boehner and Democratic congressional leaders on Capitol Hill. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and White House congressional liaison Rob Nabors signaled to the Republicans that the president still intended to seek $1.6 trillion in new taxes over the coming decade, starting with an immediate increase in the rates for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, the Washington Post reported.

While the Republicans have indicated they might go along with half that amount of new revenue, they refuse to raise the top rates. Instead, they insist they could generate the revenue by capping the amount taxpayers can claim in deductions and overhauling and simplifying the tax code to make it more efficient—an assertion the Democrats don’t buy.

Moreover, the administration demanded that Congress relinquish control over federal debt levels and approve at least $50 billion in new spending to boost the economy next year as part of an agreement to avert the year-end fiscal cliff., according to the Post.

In return, the president offered to find $400 billion over 10-years in savings from federal health and retirement programs.  But those savings would be wiped out, the Republican aides said, by Obama’s proposal to extend a slew of expensive policies, including emergency unemployment benefits and a temporary payroll tax holiday that is now set to expire at the end of the year.

Republicans apparently viewed the offer as a slap in the face, and Boehner at his news conference sharply criticized Democrats for not outlining possible expenditure cuts. Republican leaders stipulated these reductions as part of a “Grand Bargain,” including additional tax revenues to shrink the deficit over the long term.

With only a few more weeks before the lame duck Congress runs out of time, some lawmakers said yesterday they were dismayed the negotiations aren’t further along. Sen. Jeff B. Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, said, “I can’t imagine the President of the United States at this late date isn’t willing to say what he thinks and what his vision for America is.  He has not discussed the $16 trillion debt. He will not tell the American people they’re on an unsustainable path.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said, “We’re going to have to get together. There isn’t a lot of time left. It’s negotiating time, it’s good faith time, it’s getting this done time, that’s number one. Because that’s what the American people want, the markets want some predictability and certainty. This is a no brainer. People have got to get together.”

Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.