John Boehner and Timothy Geithner both managed to crack smiles during televised interviews about the fiscal cliff on Sunday, and neither man raised his voice or grew visibly agitated.
But nothing else from either the House speaker or the Treasury secretary – not body language, not rhetoric – suggested Washington lawmakers are anywhere close to a breakthrough on solving the so-called fiscal cliff before its tax hikes and spending cuts begin to kick in next month.
Geithner, who has played point man for President Obama’s negotiating team with Republicans over the last week, told NBC’s David Gregory that “I think we’re going to get there” and reach a deal. His follow-up suggested that’s less optimism and more a public pressure tactic. “The only thing that would keep us from getting there,” he said, “is a refusal from Republicans to let rates go up on the wealthiest Americans, and I don’t think they’re going to do that.”
That’s exactly how the White House would like the public to view these negotiations: as eminently solvable, and stuck only on pesky upper-income tax rates. Republicans see them very differently, with a heavy emphasis on a need to reduce future government spending to bring down the budget deficit, as Boehner made clear.
“What we don’t know,” he told Fox’s Chris Wallace, “is what’s the president is willing to do” to reduce safety-net spending on programs such as Medicare and Social Security, as part of a debt-reduction package.
Neither Boehner not Geithner hinted at any real policy breakthroughs in the discussions. The interviews were more revealing about negotiating tactics – specifically, which parts of their hands both men consider to be strongest, and worth pressing.
Geithner and Obama clearly see public support for raising taxes on the rich as their best card. “There's no surprise in this,” Geithner told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “We've been proposing this for a very long time. The president campaigned on it. And I think that's where we're gonna end up.”
Boehner clearly sees the need to raise the federal borrowing limit early next year – or risk default on debt or non-payment of major government obligations – as the GOP’s best tool in forcing more spending cuts. “It’s the only way to leverage the political process to produce more change than what it would if left alone,” he said.
Perhaps the most important clues about the state of the negotiations came from what neither Boehner nor Geithner expressed in the interviews. Optimists would note the decided lack of rancor. Pessimists would note the complete lack of new concessions. All of which probably adds up to very little progress, thus far.