Until I spoke with several key players on Capitol Hill I was reasonably optimistic about a “fiscal cliff” deal. After all, the president made an offer; the Republicans responded with one that included revenue. So isn’t it now the White House’s turn? Kevin Smith, communications director for Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) summed up where things stand: “Republicans have once again offered a responsible, balanced plan to avoid the fiscal cliff, and the White House has once again demonstrated how unreasonable it has become. If the President is rejecting this middle ground offer, it is now his obligation to present a plan that can pass both chambers of Congress.” Another leadership aide comments, “The White House’s characterization of this plan as a ‘step backward’ shows just how disengaged the President truly is in preventing our economy from going over the cliff.”
Well, it is not at all clear the White House is going to bother making any counteroffer, making it sticky for all those indignant lefty pundits who hollered that the president deserved a response to his offer. Now that he got one, what is the excuse for him declining to respond?
Suspicion runs deep in conservative circles — on the Hill, in think tanks and conservative media — that the White House doesn’t want to take the heat from the left for making a deal. The thinking goes that the president is unable or unwilling to take on his base on discretionary spending or entitlement reform and has convinced himself he has a mandate to do nothing but raise taxes on the rich. One senior Senate adviser put it this way, speculating the White House would give no response to the GOP: “The House showed that the White House won’t take anything but their own plan.” He added, “I really think they’d rather have a political ‘win’ even if it means the country is screwed. [The president won], the election’s over. They can’t figure that out. Governing’s hard work.”
Others are only slightly more hopeful that a final deal can be arrived at that gets to $1.2 trillion in revenue (the midway point between the president’s offer of $1.6 trillion and the GOP’s offer of $800 billion) without rate increases. A longtime Republican operative offers the most optimistic take: “I could be wrong, but I think it’s all an act. Play as looooooong as possible on rates to try to get the GOP to give up as much as possible on spending cuts. The lesson on debt limit 2011 for White House should be that Obama was just as badly damaged as GOP. That will happen again in this scenario, especially now that GOP gave a reasonable working deal by just about any account.”
The Simpson-Bowles whispering campaign is getting louder. The Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Moore, an ardent foe of tax increases, observes: “One virtue of the plan, according to those who are touting this approach, is that a GOP embrace of Simpson-Bowles makes it much more difficult for Mr. Obama and Harry Reid to blame the Republicans for whatever economic carnage it causes. As the fiscal cliff gets closer, it’s all about who wins the blame game.” But at this point it’s fairly obvious the president is uninterested in real entitlement reform and wouldn’t take Simpson-Bowles even if offered (which many Republicans would refuse to do).
For now, however, the House has its offer on the table and is not about to bid against itself. On the House side, two senior GOP aides were dismayed. Asked if the president would counteroffer or just demagogue, one said simply, “Demagogue.” Other GOP advisers close to senior leadership don’t think a White House offer will be coming anytime soon.
The level of cynicism from the White House is quite stunning. The president has done nothing but repeat his 2012 budget plan, one that got zero votes in Congress. Beyond that, he has no interest in governing? Gosh, all those well-meaning Dems and mainstream columnists who said he really did get it now, really understood it would take negotiations to reach a fiscally responsible deal will be awfully disappointed.
Republicans aren’t surprised in the least. On a scale of zero to ten (ten being certainty that we will go over the cliff), I’d put us at about 8.