5 key players who could throw us over fiscal cliff

GOP and Democratic lawmakers are staking out routes that could either force compromise or snap the economy's safety lines.

By The Fiscal Times Oct 15, 2012 7:58AM

The Fiscal Times logo By Eric Pianin and Josh Boak

As the presidential election campaign grinds its way into November, Republican and Democratic lawmakers are busily hammering their own pitons into the fiscal cliff -- staking out routes that could either force compromise or snap the economy's safety lines.

The politics are as steep as the economic consequences. The $660 billion jumble of expiring tax breaks and automatic spending cuts scheduled to take effect in early January threaten to shove the country back into recession—a downturn that may be gradual or unexpectedly sudden. The jockeying for position has only increased the uncertainty of what exactly will happen during the lame duck Congress after the Nov. 6 election.

The two parties' profound differences over economic and tax policy will be front and center tonight when Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan meet in Danville, Ky., for a nationally televised debate. With the outcome of the race between President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney now very much in doubt, political leaders back in Washington have begun taking strong positions on spending, entitlements and tax reform in anticipation of a showdown after the election. Who does the negotiating matters almost as much as what the terms of the deal are—and plenty of lawmakers are vying to star in this particular drama.

"Given the size and complexity and the time requirements, you can't afford to make the circle too big or nothing is ever going to get done," said Jim Manley, the former press secretary for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. a key ally of Reid's, drilled into the cliff's ideological divide on Tuesday. To reduce the deficit, the Senate's third-ranking Democrat called for both higher tax rates on wealthy Americans and closing tax loopholes, dangling in return for Republicans the possibility of cutting Medicare expenses by "hundreds of billions of dollars."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., quickly rejected the offer as a "plan to hold the economy hostage to massive, job-killing tax hikes." Separately, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., is convening a bipartisan "gang" of eight Senate deficit hawks to broker a pact of their own.
The lower tax rates enacted during the administration of former president George W. Bush are the main sticking points in negotiations. President Obama would only continue them for families earning less than $250,000, while Republican nominee Mitt Romney plans to reduce the rates further.

Cut through the posturing and much hangs with five key players during the weeks of the lame duck session—right before the government would clamber over the crest of the fiscal cliff in 2013.

House Speaker John Boehner – As one of the few leaders practically guaranteed to hold the same position after the election, the Ohio Republican favors extending all of the breaks for one year and any increase to the debt ceiling must be offset by spending cuts. Getting a lame duck deal would be "difficult," Boehner recently told Politico, and "frankly, I'm not sure it's the right thing to do -- have a lot of retiring members and defeated members voting on really big bills."

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner — Along with White House chief of staff Jack Lew, Geithner will be among the key negotiators if Obama gets reelected. He's called for laying a foundation in the closing weeks of 2012 to sidestep the cliff. He's already holding closed-door discussions with House Ways and Means Chairman David Camp, R-Mich., and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – The Nevada Democrat says he'll only agree to a deal that increases taxes on high-income Americans. "I do not believe that we are going to go over the fiscal cliff," Reid, who favors a long-term deal, told reporters last month.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – The Kentucky Republican wants all the Bush-era tax rates extended for a year as broader tax reform gets hashed out—and the sequester on spending rejiggered so that the military is spared $50 billion of cuts next year.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi -- Protecting Medicare—a $550 billion entitlement— is the top priority of the California Democrat, who opposes the Republican plan to segue it into a voucher-style program. "Does anyone have a question on the most important issue facing the American people?" Pelosi told reporters earlier this month. "The survival of Medicare. And if you don't think it's important just think of granny moving into the den on one of those adjustable beds when they have to leave the nursing home."

That's a frightening set of differences to overcome. Boehner pooh-poohs using lame duck compromise to avoid edging off the cliff. Tax hikes are necessary for Reid, yet McConnell abhors them. And Pelosi is committed to shielding Medicare—whose growth drives the deficit—from dramatic overhauls.

Geithner prefers to talk publicly about how the negotiations should proceed, instead of the actual state of play. "It would seem to be a remarkable thing for this country at this moment in history to say we can't solve the problem, we can't find principled compromise," he told Bloomberg TV in August. "And so we're going to put the country through wrenching trauma as a way to force political consensus. "

All of that enhances the sense of uncertainty as the clock ticks down.

"People want a deal, but nobody has the foggiest idea of what that deal would look like," said Steve Bell, a senior staffer with the Bipartisan Policy Center and former Republican Senate aide. "I just wonder after all the debate and after all the hard and fast positions they're going to take… whether they can come back and within 45 days reverse those decisions" in order to reach a compromise.

For Warner's group to be effective, it not only has to establish a consensus that's been elusive in the past but also design a compromise that passes muster with skeptical party leaders. Reid has little interest in ceding power to an ad hoc group of Democratic and Republican senators, and others view the newly constituted "Gang of Eight" as a distraction or sideshow.

"It doesn't have to be a sideshow, but in order for it to be the main attraction, they're going to have to agree on something and propose something," said William Galston, a former policy director for President Bill Clinton. "Up until now they haven't been able to. So they will be a sideshow if they're just a seminar group."

And if the Democrats insist on greater tax revenues, they'll meet an immovable Republican blockade in the House that considers all net tax increases as a drag on economic growth.

"I don't care what the electoral outcome is," said J.D. Foster, an economist with the conservative Heritage Foundation, "the House of Representatives is not going to vote for anything that raises taxes further."

Eric Pianin is the Washington editor at The Fiscal Times. Subscribe to The Fiscal Times' free newsletter.
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Oct 15, 2012 11:46AM
The cliff must come and the US Congress must NOT RAISE the debt limit!!! Thats what the idiots in Washington should do ! But then we are dealing with the most useless  place in the World...Kill all the BUSH tax cuts and kill the war .. If Dems are tax and spend ! The Republicans are borrow and spend..VOTE ALL INCUMBENTS OUT....
Oct 15, 2012 3:48PM
To add insult to injury,Shumer (D) you label us “greedy” for calling “bull” on your incompetence. Well, hears a few questions for Shumer..
1. How much money have you earned from the American taxpayers during your pathetic political career?
2. At what age do you retire from your pathetic 50 year political career, and how much are you receiving in annual retirement benefits from the American taxpayers?
3. How much do you pay for YOUR government provided health insurance?
4. What cuts in YOUR retirement and healthcare benefits are you proposing in your disgusting deficit reduction proposal, or, as usual, have you exempted yourself and your political cronies?
It is you, and your political co-conspirators Reed ans Pelosi who are the “greedy” ones. It is you and your fellow nutcases who have bankrupted America and stolen the American dream from millions of loyal, patriotic taxpayers. And for what? Votes. That’s right, sir. You and yours have bankrupted America for the sole purpose of advancing your pathetic political careers. You know it, we know it, and you know that we know it.
Oct 17, 2012 1:38PM
Cold turtle McConnell is wrong when he suggests tax hikes (modest ones, on the wealthiest earners) would be job-killing. This is a fallacy, and demonstrably wrong looking at the historical record. He continues to spew this flatulence because he represents everything wrong with American politics. He's a sour-grapes, spoiled and greedy out of control corporate shill who has benefitted handsomely from being in bed with the special interests. I find him like a noxious bug I'd like to smash under the heel of my shoe. He's not a true patriot, only in the most twisted way. He's an extremely selfish individual, likely with a sociopathic profile like many of his kind, who would not hesitate to push us over the fiscal cliff if he doesn't get his way. He and his cohorts don't compromise in the least for the good of the people, they just don't give a damned. Either Obama fails and they get their way, or to hell with us, the economy, and everything else. These are exactly the kinds of people that have made this country sick.
Oct 18, 2012 6:50PM
we need to go off the cliff !!!!  period !!!
Oct 17, 2012 12:43PM
Love the pictures of dumb and dumber. God please spare us.
Oct 18, 2012 8:26PM
IF we go over the fiscal cliff, it'll throw the global economy into chaos. It's make our recession look like a church picnic. We may not be as great as we once were but the American greenback still packs a wallop in world markets. Our congress will moan and complain ( both parties), but we realize what the consequences of doing nothing will be. Then again, BO might not?  
Oct 21, 2012 3:40AM
Well Ben Stein said it all on FOX News what i have been saying all along ! Tax cuts do not create jobs and we cannot balance the budget with just tax cuts alone!!!! And Wayne Rogers of Fox said what i have been saying all along !!! The US Congress are the ones that must act.. And they are still on VACATION America.... DUH.....
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