'Fiscal Cliff' Feels More Like Chicken Than Negotiation

ABC News
'Fiscal Cliff' Feels More Like Chicken Than Negotiation
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'Fiscal Cliff' Feels More Like Chicken Than Negotiation (ABC News)

Usually, when lawmakers try to strike a big deal, they do it in small groups and behind closed doors.

That's how Democrats tried to draft their health reform bill. That's how they put together the Wall Street bailout.

That's how, in the summer of 2011, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner almost reached a "grand bargain" to deal with the deficit as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling. The Boehner and Obama meetings were the result of many hours of previous meetings headed by their top deputies, Vice President Biden and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

The details didn't really become evident until the whole deal blew up and Boehner and Obama held hastily arranged news conferences to explain their sides of the story.

But recent negotiations on how to deal with the fiscal cliff - it's a result of those failed 2011 mano a mano negotiations, don't forget - seem, at least on the outside, very different.

There is no room for journalists to stake out. There is no daily report from staffers that negotiations are ongoing.

That's because the negotiating seems to be going on in public, through tough-talking interviews and press conferences. What happened to all the smoke-filled rooms?

In fact, the fiscal cliff standoff seems more like a game of chicken than a negotiation. And that's partly true because both sides have dug so deeply into their positions, particularly on tax rates for the wealthy.

President Obama wants to extend Bush-era tax cuts for all but the top two percent of wage earners. John Boehner and most Republicans want to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for everyone. And until one side is willing to accept the other's position, or find a way around it, the game will continue.

Last Thursday, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner delivered an offer to Republicans on the Hill. It was quickly leaked to reporters by one side or the other:

$1.6 trillion in tax increases

$50 billion in new stimulus spending

$400 billion in unspecified Medicare cuts over 10 years

A virtually unlimited ability for the government to borrow money

"There's a stalemate," Speaker of the House John Boehner told reporters the next day. "Let's not kid ourselves."

On Monday, Boehner offered a counteroffer. How? A letter delivered to the White House and to the press. It was delivered just as President Obama was taking questions from the public via Twitter and saying why he thinks the top two tax rates should be allowed to rise at the end of the year.

It included half the tax increases the president asked for and none of the stimulus spending.

Read more about Boehner's proposal here.

When Boehner attended the White House Christmas party that night, he didn't stand in line to talk to the president. And it doesn't appear that President Obama sought him out.

"I can guarantee you that conversations continue at different levels among different groups," said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney when asked Tuesday what sort of progress was being made. "Whether there are emails being exchanged at this moment, I cannot say, but broadly speaking, there are conversations taking place. The president met with dozens, scores of lawmakers last night and had conversations. I'm not going to get into the details" - he's talking about that White House Christmas party here - "I'm not going to get into the details of the conversations. It's inconceivable to me that nobody mentioned the fiscal cliff, but I wasn't present for all of them. "

President Obama made some broad declarations about what he would or wouldn't support during an interview with Bloomberg TV on Tuesday. He said the Republican proposal wasn't serious. No deal, he told the reporter Julianna Goldman, without higher tax rates for the wealthy.

On Wednesday, Obama made some more public declarations. He won't negotiate on how the government should go about raising the debt ceiling.

"I want to send a very clear message to people here: We are not going to play that game next year. If Congress in any way suggests that they're going to tie negotiations to debt ceiling votes and take us to the brink of default once again as part of a budget negotiation, which, by the way, we have never done in our history until we did it last year, I will not play that game," Obama told some of the nation's top CEOs at the Business Roundtable in Washington. "We've got to break that habit before it starts."

Boehner, smarting that his counteroffer was rejected, said the president should send along new proposal - and he did it at a Capitol Hill press conference broadcast on some of the cable news networks.

"If the president doesn't agree with our proposal and our outline, I think he's got an obligation to send one to the Congress," Boehner, R-Ohio, said on Wednesday. "We're ready and eager to talk to the president and to work with him to make sure that the American people aren't disadvantaged by what's happening here in Washington.

Of course there is talk of a "doomsday" plan for Republicans to let a measure to pass that would allow the rates to rise as the president wants, and then take up the argument again next year.

Read more about the GOP's 'Doomsday' plan.

And several Republicans in the Senate have joined the House Republican, Rep. Tom Cole, to argue that maybe the rates should be allowed to rise on the top two percent in order to negotiate a broader tax reform bill in 2013.

But with less than a month until the tax hikes and the spending cuts of the fiscal cliff kick in, there doesn't seem to be any real movement.

On Wednesday House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told lawmakers to expect to be in Washington late into December.

Cantor said the House will now be in session the week of Dec. 17, but the exact days won't be announced until next week. Cantor also pledged that the House will not adjourn until a credible solution to the fiscal cliff is found.

It could be a while.

And people on both sides of the aisle are starting to wonder if the best way to avoid the cliff is to put Obama and Boehner back in a room together.

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