December 12, 2012

There are two versions of the story among congressional Republicans as to what is going on between House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and President Obama in private talks seeking to avoid the “fiscal cliff.” Those closest to the scene (but still unwilling to talk on the record) suggest that not much is going on; others think, as one savvy Hill watcher put it, “Boehner – I don’t mean this as a knock – but he will not let the House go over the cliff. It is not his style.”

John Boehner
House Speaker John Boehner (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

As was widely reported, Obama made a cosmetic change in his offer, lowering the tax demand to $1.4 trillion from $1.6 trillion, but took no stab at entitlement reform or specific cuts. He is sticking with his demand to obliterate the debt ceiling, giving the White House unlimited power to increase borrowing. Boehner then gave the president a counter-offer, for which few details were available.

Boehner’s communications director, Kevin Smith, would only provide a statement that read:

We sent the White House a counter-offer that would achieve tax and entitlement reform to solve our looming debt crisis and create more American jobs.  As the Speaker said today, we’re still waiting for the White House to identify what spending cuts the president is willing to make as part of the ‘balanced approach’ he promised the American people.  The longer the White House slow-walks this process, the closer our economy gets to the fiscal cliff.

Finally it seems that Republicans have figured out it is better politics and policy to insist on spending cuts and entitlement reform in exchange for tax increases than to inveigh against any tax hit on the wealthy.

So are they “75 percent there,” as one unnamed source told CNN, or is it really the case, as one senior Senate adviser told me, that “today doesn’t matter”?

Most Republicans are convinced that Boehner very much wants to make a deal, both because he fears the impact on the fragile economy and because he fully appreciates the political pillorying that Republicans will undergo if there is no deal. (Moreover, the GOP will be defenseless next year if, after going over the cliff, Democrats vote to “cut” taxes — that is, return them to the Bush-tax-cut levels for all but the top earners.)

The rub here is that Boehner can’t make a deal (one that will pass the House and ensure his continued speakership) if the president clings to his position of no real cuts and a permanent lifting of the debt ceiling. In that regard he is both in the driver’s seat and at risk: Make a deal that requires some pain on his side, or fail again in bargaining with a willing dealmaker?

In 2011 Obama opted to avoid angering his base, or perhaps he could not bring himself to give his opponents anything, which would have dispelled the portrait of obstruction he had patiently been drawing since his election.

A reelected Obama may decide differently. Maybe he does want to do something historic and keep alive his second term for items such as immigration reform. Dogged partisan or flexible leader? On this choice, the economy and our fiscal predicament rests.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.