New year likely to arrive with no rescue from the 'fiscal cliff'

The "fiscal cliff" looms ahead and it is a solid bet that no one will come up with a deal in time to stop the country from careening off the edge. Nearly everyone claims they want to avoid the automatic tax increases and massive budget cuts that will start kicking in on Jan. 1, but few are ready to make the compromises necessary to make that happen.

As expected, anti-tax purists in the House Republican Caucus have gotten in the way of Speaker John A. Boehner’s attempts to come up with a fix for the fiscal cliff. Last week, he withdrew his own Plan B rather than let it go to a vote he knew he would lose. Democrats were united in their opposition, but what really killed the scheme was the refusal of conservatives in Boehner’s own caucus to go along with a tax increase for millionaires.

Boehner now seems to have washed his hands of responsibility and says it is up to the president and Democrats in the Senate to save the country from the new year’s program cuts and tax increases that will come so fast and furiously that the economy could suffer. President Obama cut short his Hawaii vacation to return to the snow-covered capital hoping to concoct a last-minute deal, but he may have been better off staying with his wife and daughters on the sandy shores of Oahu.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reed will shortly offer an option he hopes Republicans cannot refuse. It will propose to do several popular things: perpetuate George W. Bush-era tax cuts for everyone earning less than $250,000 a year; keep Medicare reimbursement levels from dropping; preserve long-term unemployment benefits; stop a tax bracket slide that would expose many more citizens to the alternative minimum tax; and make a few modest spending reductions. Even if it does next to nothing about long-term budget deficits, there is nothing in Reed’s plan that would upset most voters.

If such a crowd-pleasing scheme got to the House and Boehner allowed a vote on it (as he seems to have said he would), Democrats might be joined by just enough Republicans to get the thing passed. The harder trick could be getting it anywhere in the Senate. It takes just one Republican die-hard to block Reed’s bill. A filibuster would only have to last until the ball drops in Times Square and 2013 would begin with the wrenching sound of an economy tumbling down a hillside.

Public opinion polls indicate Republicans are taking most of the heat for this impasse, but ultra-conservative GOP senators and House members do not fear the ire of the general public nearly as much as they quake with terror at the thought of enraging tea party zealots in their home districts. Conservative politicians would rather fly of the cliff than take a vote that would earn them opposition in the next Republican primary.

It would be nice to believe there is back-channel negotiating going on that even the Washington press corps has not uncovered. It would also be nice to believe Santa is back in his workshop tinkering on next year’s array of toys. Frankly, though, there is more evidence of elves at the North Pole than there is of a cooperative, constructive spirit rising in the halls of Congress.


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