The fiscal cliff is not a congressional procedure problem. At least not right now.
Suzy Khimm gets to that a bit in a good post about why a Pete Dominici scheme to smooth the way for a “grand bargain” isn’t really a big deal, but I think it’s worth drawing out the point a bit more.
Anything that’s going to pass in 2012 has to get through a majority of the House of Representatives, with its Republican majority, and the Senate, which has 53 Democrats. Oh, and it has to be signed by the Democratic president, so a GOP plan that manages to pick off a handful of Senate Democrats won’t do, either.
There simply aren’t enough people in the center in either party to construct a real middle-against-the-ends majority coalition that would build a slim majority in both chambers. Anything that is going to pass is almost certainly going to have mainstream Democrats and mainstream Republicans on board, and that means a large majority and the leadership of both parties in both chambers.
Getting to majority in both chambers (and with a presidential signature) means that we’ll have a supermajority in both chambers. Oh, the eventual votes might not come down that way; it’s possible that the eventual bills will pass with relatively slim majorities, with the Senate agreeing to vote under majority rule to allow more people to vote against the package. But given divided government and polarization, there just isn’t an available true slim majority in both chambers for anything large like this.
Filibusters, holds and other obstructive tactics were a big deal in the historic 111th Congress because, for better or worse, they prevented a clear majority from acting. The problem in the 112th Congress is that there usually isn’t a clear cross-chamber majority for, well, much of anything — and that quite a few members of Congress, mostly on the Republican side, have positioned themselves against compromise as some sort of principle. Procedural rules just don’t have very much to do with it.