The lame duck dragged on. Reporters watched the White House for signs like the faithful in Rome awaiting a puff of white smoke to signal a new pope. House members arrived in Washington, wandered aimlessly for a day or two, and were sent home early. The city “feels like a ghost town, with nothing but Christmas parties going on,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. Lobbyists, asked to get last-minute client meetings with lawmakers, found it shockingly easy to get on members’ calendars.
Boehner and Obama spoke on the telephone again on Wednesday, Dec. 5, but the president’s position didn’t change. He told a gathering of the nation’s top CEOs that a debt-ceiling fix must be part of any deal. “I will not play that game” again, he declared. And Geithner made it explicit, declaring that the administration is “absolutely” willing to go over the cliff. Pelosi chided Boehner in her weekly news conference. “Risk something,” she taunted. “Figure it out.”
The speaker ventured to the White House on Sunday, Dec. 9, and came away encouraged. He believed that Obama had lowered his demand for more tax revenue from $1.6 trillion to $1.2 trillion. But White House aides said Boehner was misinformed: The president had agreed only to go to $1.4 trillion. The misunderstanding irritated GOP aides – “It was definitely an unpleasant surprise,” one said - but it was at least a sign of movement.
Monday, Dec. 10, brought another sweetener from Obama. Not only would he lower his revenue demand to $1.4 trillion, the president also promised to support lower corporate tax rates through an overhaul of the corporate tax code – which Republicans coveted. But there was a stick with the carrot, as the president made another campaign swing to Michigan.
There were now, clearly, both a public and a private reality. Each side was begrudgingly making small concessions in their private talks, while sticking to their public positions, and exchanging barbed criticism—a messaging tact that Obama would employ to the very end. Boehner lashed out at Obama on the House floor, accusing the president of adopting a “slow-walk” strategy off the fiscal cliff. McConnell blasted the White House as well, but Reid said it was Boehner’s fault – that the speaker could not control his members and feared a challenge from the Young Guns.
At one point – on the night of Tuesday, Dec. 11 – the talks appeared to be on the brink of collapse. Obama and Boehner spoke on the telephone that day, and that night Nabors went to the Capitol to talk with his counterparts on the speaker’s staff. He was welcomed by Sommers and Loper. The meeting “wasn’t angry,” a House leadership aide recalled. But they all acknowledged, “Hey, we’re not close, are we?”
And at the meeting of House Republicans the next day, Boehner canceled Christmas. Or, more specifically, he warned his members that they might have to return to Washington during Christmas week to vote on a deal. And if there wasn’t a deal to be done, said the speaker, they should ready themselves for a prolonged stretch of “trench warfare” lasting into the 113th Congress.
On Thursday, at Obama’s invitation, Boehner visited the White House. In addition to the speaker and the president, the meeting in the Oval Office included Geithner, Nabors, Sommers, and Loper. And, from the perspective of the Republicans in the room, it did not go well.
In the meetings between Boehner and Obama, a GOP aide recalled, “The president does the vast bulk of the talking and spends a lot of time trying to talk Boehner into Democratic positions, which is a complete waste of time.” Boehner would say, 'Here’s where I am and here’s where I can go,' and Obama would launch into an explanation of the superiority of Democratic Party philosophy. The speaker worked better with Pelosi. They talked practicalities, not philosophy.
The president spoke almost the entire 50-minute meeting, telling Republicans that if he did not get an agreement he liked, he would spend the next four years blaming them for what could turn into a global recession. The blame game would begin in earnest with his Inaugural Address and would follow up with a repeat performance in the State of the Union, a GOP source recalled. If they deny him now, he said, he would block future spending cuts for the next four years. “I put $800 billion on the table. What do I get for that?” Boehner asked. “You get nothing. I get that for free,” said Obama, adding that would not raise the Medicare eligibility age or cut Medicaid.
Boehner challenged the president for backtracking on the spending cuts and entitlement reforms he was willing to propose during 2011’s debt ceiling debate. Obama conceded moving left, but argued the election had changed the political landscape.
And then, at 9 o’clock in the morning on Friday, Dec.14, a gunman walked into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. and killed 20 children and six adults. The president appeared in the White House briefing room at 3:15 that Friday afternoon, wiping tears away as he spoke about the “beautiful little kids” who died. Newtown needed “us to be our best as Americans,” he told a grief-stricken nation.