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Congress / Budget

Don't Think the Fiscal-Cliff Impasse Is Over Numbers--It's Over Politics

Despite being close on numbers, Democrats and Republicans must bridge a wide political divide.

December 20, 2012

If anyone doubted the way partisan politics would trip up the fiscal-cliff negotiations, then look no further than the Republican’s failed attempt to pass the Plan B legislation on Thursday night.

House Speaker John Boehner could not even unify his members around a singular theme on taxes—mainly, that taxes should go up for millionaires while everyone else should continue to receive a big tax cut. Boehner attributed the difficulty to the widening political divide the country faces. “Trying to bridge differences has been difficult,” he said on Friday morning. “If it were easy, I guarantee you this would have been done decades before.”

So this is where the fiscal-cliff talks now stand: Politics and party orthodoxy reign supreme and trump even basic math. Boehner and President Obama are just $400 billion apart with their most recent offers, but that means nothing when it comes to closing a deal. The political differences are the real key to compromise, yet they are proving too difficult to overcome before the new year.

 

Both sides of the aisle are to blame, really. The Republicans are deeply committed to not raising tax rates, regardless of any potential blowback from the American public or fears they will be blamed for taking the country over the cliff.

And, just as stubbornly, Democrats do not want to budge on cutting entitlement programs. The president’s latest offer did not go very far in cutting the social-safety net. It did not make any deep cuts to Medicaid or even raise the eligibility age for Medicare, but that didn’t stop Democrats from crying foul.

“You’ve got to believe that there are ways that if you or I sat down to figure out how to bridge these gaps, we could probably do it in a couple of hours,” said Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “But this is much trickier politically.”

The Republicans took the center stage this week in showing off the difficulties of overcoming the partisan divide by attempting, and then failing, to pass a Plan B measure to avert the cliff. This bill would have extended the Bush-era tax cuts for everyone but those households with income above $1 million.

For some Republicans, the Plan B represented an acceptance of reality that Obama had won the election on a promise to raise taxes on upper-earners. But for too many other Republicans, such as Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the bill represented too deep of a shift in party ideology. Barton had planned to vote against the Plan B legislation, and he said that’s just the price of working within a divided government.

“You have to have a conversation with the American people,” he added. “They voted for divided government, and the two parties have a difference of view on where the country needs to go.”

Throughout the week, this question of sticking with ideological purity versus compromising gave Republicans nothing but heartburn.

“Once you cross that line and say its OK for some people’s taxes to go up, I think it’s a mistake for the Republican Party,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. “I think that’s what I think a lot of members are struggling with.”

Democrats, too, engaged in much angst this week about abandoning party principles and potentially cutting into the social-safety net as part of a grand budget deal. Members of the House Democratic Caucus, along with top staffers, met behind closed doors on Tuesday morning for breakfast and for a presentation by White House Legislative Affairs Director Rob Nabors.

He briefed them on the White House’s latest fiscal-cliff offer, which would cut entitlement programs by slowing the annual cost-of-living adjustments for benefits like Social Security. House Democratic members left the meeting irritated—“We don’t like chained CPI,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., hollered at reporters as he briskly walked down the hallway. 

Many worried that cutting benefits while the Republicans were still only offering to raise rates on millionaires would hurt the wrong people. “The amount of money you get from Social Security recipients is not that much money, except to the seniors. It’s a huge amount of money to the seniors and to people with disabilities,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. “To take from someone who is living on $1,500 a month and say, ‘We’re going to cut that, but, dammit, we’re not going to raise taxes for people over $400,000 a year.’ It seems unfair.”

Part of the issue, congressional experts say, is that the cliff negotiations are a proxy for a bigger fight: control of the legislative agenda in 2013. Republicans would like to spend more time cutting dollars from the federal budget and overhauling the entitlement programs. Democrats want to move past the fiscal battles to enact the Affordable Care Act and possibly immigration reform.

The outcome of the fiscal-cliff negotiations will set the tone for whatever lies ahead in 2013. Increasingly, though, it looks like the agenda will involve ongoing fiscal battles. Whoever wins such battles doesn’t just dominate the legislative agenda but also gains a leg up for the 2014 midterm elections.

Republicans would like to “to tie up the Congress in these fiscal issues because they probably believe that frustration with Congress and Washington will benefit the out party”--the party not in the White House, said Steven Smith, a political-science professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Which is just a polite way of saying: Numbers be damned, the politics never ends.

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