As the fiscal cliff rapidly approaches, there could be a relative burst of activity over the weekend. Here are a few of the key players to watch as the saga unfolds:
1. President Obama. The president either has an offer that will stop the excess spending and reform entitlements or he doesn't. The big question is, will he table a bold plan? Only real spending reform will secure Republican votes. Taxes will be easy to agree on if real spending reform is part of a deal. The president can't hide anymore.
2. White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew. Lew has more respect as a peer on Capitol Hill than President Obama does. He is considered more of a veteran and more of a master of the art of the possible than Obama. He understands the budget, and next to Vice President Biden, he knows the congressional leadership better than anyone in the White House. He's not Mr. Warm and Fuzzy, but everyone thinks he knows what he's talking about, and everyone appreciates the fact that he knows something about their history and the cross-pressures they feel within their caucuses. If Obama really wants to sell a deal, his chief of staff will be a key salesman and someone to watch.
3. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). McConnell is sometimes taciturn and stoic, but he is always in control. He always has a plan, and he is always thinking ahead. He is so much more experienced and savvy than Obama that if they go head-to-to head, McConnell will get more than he gives.
5. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). If the Democrats need diversionary cheapshots thrown at House Speaker John Boehner, then I can't think of anyone better for the job than Reid. But now something needs to pass. The Senate hasn't passed a budget on Reid's watch in four years. It's not that the Democrats can't do it, it's that they won't do it. Passing a budget would reveal the extent of the taxes and spending that they really want. In fact, what many Democrats really want is to end the Bush-era tax rates and slash defense. Or, put another way, they want to go over the cliff. Reid is in a tough spot if the Senate needs to pass something.
4. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) Ryan is the canary in the coal mine. If he supports something, it means it has majority support among Republicans in the House, and Boehner has the green light to proceed to the floor with his rank-and-file behind him. Ryan is ambitious, ideologically committed, and he won't be a part of a bad deal. If he says a deal is okay, the GOP right-wing will mostly believe it.
Not at the table: House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The White House doesn't confide in her. She has a committed block of votes, but it is very unlikely that there will be a deal that passes with most Democrats joining with a few Republicans to get it done. There aren't enough suicidal Republicans who would join a Pelosi-sponsored bill.
Who isn't at the table but should be: Vice President Biden.The vice president is popular in Congress. Republicans admire his experience and his good nature. He can't persuade legislators to abandon their principles, but everyone would listen to him and believe he is coming from an honest place. I wonder why he isn't being put to better use?
We're at a point where only a very few in Washington can make something happen. These leaders control the fate of our economy, and the consequences of their actions could impact their parties more than anything between now and the 2014 midterm elections.