Who will blink first on fiscal cliff?

Published 11:00 pm Wednesday, December 12, 2012

How are the “fiscal cliff” negotiations going? Reportedly, Republican leaders and President Barack Obama are in a stare-down. However, many rank-and-file Republican members have blinked, apparently ready to fold a demonstrably losing hand.

These Republicans have begun to recognize that both morally and economically, the tax rates on the wealthy must return to those of the Clinton-Gore era. But Republican leaders apparently feel that the rich getting richer – their rates are lower than yours, dear reader — is more important than getting our country’s long-term finances in order.

The negotiations began when Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner visited Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and gave him Obama’s proposal to read. McConnell, by his own account, read it, smiled and then “burst into laughter.” Geithner, apparently a little stunned, said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile.”

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Obama then asked the Republicans to present a counter-proposal. Speaker John Boehner called the president’s proposal “la la land,” then offered to raise just half the revenue Obama proposed, and to do that by closing unidentified loopholes. White House press secretary James Carney characterized their recommendation as “magic beans and fairy dust.”

In 2001, tax rates changed, becoming, in effect, a vacation from taxes for the wealthy, and tax relief for 98 percent of all Americans. Obama wants to end that vacation. His proposal also includes about a $25 billion in stimulus spending for jobs growth and the extension of the payroll tax cuts. The Republican proposal repeats Mitt Romney’s plan: Close unspecified loopholes and cut safety net programs, specifically Medicare and Social Security.

There’s only one problem: The Republican position was thoroughly debated, debunked and rejected in the election only a month ago. Voters chose Obama’s position, a balanced approach of spending cuts and increased revenues. A recent Washington Post poll confirms most Americans agree the wealthy get better tax breaks, and they want the disparity to end. And voters have overwhelmingly insisted that Congress not touch Social Security and Medicare benefits.

If an agreement isn’t reached, a Washington Post-Pew Research Center survey shows 53 percent of Americans will blame the Republicans for pushing America over the fiscal cliff.

Throughout Obama’s first term, Senate Republicans marched in lockstep to McConnell’s directions. They opposed everything. McConnell even appeared to call the shots in the House during the 2011 debt limit negotiations.

But Senate Republicans may be hearing a different drum. It’s not surprising. McConnell’s stated No. 1 priority, defeating Obama, failed. And he failed to increase the number of Republican senators. And Romney failed, in part, because he followed McConnell’s “blame Obama” strategy.

Four senators have already stopped marching blindly after McConnell. This week another senator, Bob Corker of Tennessee, joined them. Corker told a Reuters reporter that his fellow senators were beginning to see value in assenting to restoring taxes on the super wealthy, in return for holding the debt limit hostage once more, in the next Congress.

That’s one step away from the cliff and one step toward the ditch.

Holding the debt limit hostage worked well for McConnell and Boehner in 2011, but not so well for the rest of the country. On the same day that Boehner’s boast, “I got 98 percent of what I wanted,” made headlines, this was also a headline: “Dow Drops 512 Points.”

However, it seems Republicans still want to play “blink at the brink.” When Boehner offered a modest loophole closing, Sen. James DeMint attacked it, saying, “Speaker Boehner’s $800 billion tax hike will destroy American jobs … while not reducing our $16 trillion debt by a single penny.” Veteran political observers saw this as a scripted “good cop-bad cop” moment, meant to give Boehner an excuse and a way out. He can now claim the “modest loophole closing” is the best he can do because of conservative pressure.

That’s a cop-out, because Boehner remains in charge. He purged four dissidents – conservative Republicans – of their chairmanships this week, sending a clear message of “to get along, go along.” He replaced them with … other conservatives, who have no doubt agreed to play nicely and march in rank.

The easiest and simplest thing for House Republican leaders to do is to allow a vote on the Senate-passed middle class tax cuts. House Democrats filed a discharge petition to automatically bring the middle-class tax cuts to the floor, with 178 signatures and counting.

Meanwhile, a White House adviser told the Los Angeles Times, “The only time these guys have ever moved on something is when they have felt the outside pressure.” Boehner sent Congress home without having done anything to compromise. Maybe voters will buttonhole them while they’re home with a little citizen pressure.

The clock is ticking. It’s time that members of Congress listen to their constituents and honor only one pledge: to advance the common good for the sake of the Republic.

(Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.)