The uncertain way forward on the fiscal cliff

December 21, 2012

It's easy amid the failure of House Republican leaders to pass their preferred fiscal cliff solution on Thursday night to forget about the challenge this new normal presents to President Obama.


Had Boehner been able to finesse his "Plan B", which would have extended the Bush-era tax cuts for all but those making $1 million or more  year, through the House, he would have had a bargaining chip and a seat at the negotiating table with the President and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The path forward wasn't an easy one but at least there was a path. 

Now, the path ahead to a deal is hard to see. Boehner has asserted that the work of making a deal on the fiscal cliff now lies in the hands of Obama and Reid alone -- essentially washing his hands of the matter until further notice. At a press conference Friday morning, Boehner said he hoped for a deal but noted grimly: "How we get there, God only knows"

The collapse of the Republican alternative might seem to be a welcome development for Democrats until you remember this: Any solution to the fiscal cliff must pass the House, which remains in Republican hands, And, the House Republican majority made quite clear last night that voting for any sort of tax increase -- even on those making over $1 million a year -- is unacceptable.

President Obama is flying blind at this point in the negotiation process -- particularly if Boehner makes good on his pledge to stay out of the bargaining. (At his press conference, Boehner insisted: "I don’t want taxes to go up, Republicans don’t want taxes to go up, but we only run the House, Democrats continue to run Washington.")

The most obvious person to step into the power vacuum left by the failure of "Plan B" is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who, to this point, has largely let Boehner run point on the fiscal cliff.  

McConnell's calculation in terms of his own involvement may be complicated by the fact that he is up for re-election in 2014 and, although he's unlikely to face a serious primary challenge, he certainly doesn't want to be seen as poking conservatives in the eye.

What happened last night in the House amounted to pushing the "reset" button on the fiscal cliff talks. Whether some combination of Obama, Reid, McConnell and maybe even Boehner can find their way to rebuild some sort of compromise in the next 10 days remains to be seen but we, as a country, are as far from a deal today as we have been in a while.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House for the newspaper and Web site.
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Sean Sullivan | December 21, 2012