Whatever the merits of the House Republican proposal on the “fiscal cliff” (too much in taxes, too little, etc.) it has put the ball back in the White House’s court. The president dismissed the proposal out of hand, but does he expect  to get by with no substantive response? Some Democrats are nervous that simply doing nothing is bad policy and bad politics.

Reps. Steny Hoyer and Eric Hoyer (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

House Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is quoted by Politico as saying: “I think it’s some progress. Clearly if you are going to have negotiation both sides need to say where they are coming from and what their objectives are. I think it’s a positive step but it is a digest version at best. It’s in a letter and uses figures that are notional, not specific. Hopefully in the next few days — not in the next few weeks, but in the next few days — we will see in private discussions substantive movement forward on specifics. … The Democrats are going to have to move and Republicans are going to have to move. That’s the nature of the legislative process, that’s the nature of compromise.”

Mike Long, spokesman for House Majority Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), tells Right Turn, “It’s heartening to see Whip Hoyer wants to join House Republicans in being the adults in the room.”

However promising that sounds, does Hoyer speak for the White House? If Hoyer is out of sync with the administration, he may be nervous that the White House’s strategy of staying pat is ill-conceived. But if he is speaking with the backing of the White House, there may be hope for further bargaining.

Meanwhile, The Hill reports:

Hoyer said GOP proposals to raise the Medicare eligibility age, make wealthier seniors pay higher Medicare rates and limit the growth of Social Security benefits are legitimate ones, even as he warned he might not support them.

“They clearly are on the table,” Hoyer said during his weekly press briefing in the Capitol. “They were on the table in the Boehner-Obama talks. They’ve been on the table for some period of time. That does not mean that I’d be prepared to adopt them now, but they’re clearly, I think, on the table.

“We have many Republicans say ‘absolutely not’ … on rates or revenues,” he added. “There are Democrats on our side who say ‘absolutely not’ if they do A and they do B and they do C. … You’ve got to put everything on the table.”

The idea, I am sure, horrifies liberal pundits who have been propounding the notion that benefit cuts are sacrosanct and that the president has been flexible while the Republicans have not. (What exactly has the president given up?) And on entitlements, Hoyer may well be out in front of the White House.

The biggest barrier to a deal may not be taxes after all. Republicans have crossed the Rubicon on that issue (although not on tax rates), but Democratic leadership and the White House publicly have not moved on entitlements.

The president has never, in his first term and after the election, had the courage to take on his base and make a deal on entitlement reform (e.g. increasing retirement age gradually). It is simply not in his nature, I fear, to look outside his left-wing prism (i.e. soaking the rich is the end to our fiscal woes), leaving it to some future president to deal with the entitlement mess.

This may not work this time, however. President Obama faces the potential for a recession and, if not resolved now, another fight over the debt ceiling. Critics of the president have debated whether he is an inept negotiator or an unwilling one. For now it appears to be the latter. And smart Dems like Hoyer have every reason to be nervous. The first recession may have been on President George W. Bush’s watch, but a second will be Obama’s.