Hang tough, Mr. President

Boehner calls the House back on Sunday while McConnell rants and raves, but Obama still holds all the cards

Published December 27, 2012 11:51PM (EST)

         (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

I didn't even have a vacation interrupted this week, and yet I'm still personally affronted by the spectacle of Washington pretending it's going to act on the so-called fiscal cliff. Anyone forced back to work by this mess has to be really resentful.

I hope that includes the president.

On a day marked by rumors of action that mainly turned out to be false – thanks in part to a Facebook post by soon-to-be-former Sen. Scott Brown – it was easy to believe the phony blame game that apportions equal responsibility to both sides, even though it's perfectly clear that Democrats have compromised to a fault, while the GOP won't. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid misdiagnosed the problem when he said House Speaker John Boehner was running a "dictatorship" – if he was a dictator, he could have at least passed Plan B. Reid's playing Dueling Floor Rants with the impotent Mitch McConnell could make anyone say "a pox on both their houses."

Of course, Reid was right on one point: The simplest way to resolve at least the looming tax hike problem is for the House to pass the Senate bill that extends the Bush tax cuts for everyone but the top 2 percent of taxpayers. I'm not sure I trust Reid or House Democrats who claim it would get enough Republican votes, plus all the Democrats, to pass the House – never underestimate the power of Tea Party dead-enders in the caucus -- but it would be an interesting test, for all sides.

Boehner should at least let the House take up the bill, but so far it looks like he won't: His defenders are invoking "the Hastert rule," named for accidental GOP Speaker Dennis Hastert, which prohibited bills from coming to the floor if they didn't have "a majority of the majority" – which defines majority solely in terms of party.

All day the media were chasing phantoms: Obama had made a new proposal to the Senate (thanks, Scott Brown; good luck, Ed Markey!), and then Obama was meeting with the Congressional big four: Boehner, McConnell, Reid and Nancy Pelosi on Friday. All day the White House denied those reports. But the president did come back to Washington Thursday, leaving his family behind in Hawaii. Here's hoping he will resume his conversation with the American people, at least, on Friday.

I continue to worry that Obama is all too inclined to go for a grand bargain with Republicans – even as I know that even formerly reasonable Republicans are all too inclined to deny him a victory, in order to fend off primary challenges from the Tea Party right. Yet though I harbor my own misgivings about his political instincts on Social Security and Medicare, going back to his first presidential run, I prefer when he's talking to the American people to when he's not. The longer this cliff kabuki goes on, the more likely it is that the public will join mainstream journalists in blaming both sides. Since Obama ended his vacation, he ought to end his (recent) silence and rally the public to his side.

It's strangely fitting: The CNBC screamer who helped launch the Tea Party, Rick Santelli, lost it again Thursday afternoon over the fiscal-cliff standoff, after Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner turned up the heat by declaring that the country would reach the debt ceiling Dec. 31. "The Fed doesn't have a clue, neither does the president, neither does Congress ... Neither does Tim Geithner, who gives a speech about the debt ceiling. I'd like to see if he could count to a million, much less 16.4 trillion!" Santelli shouted.

But crazy Santelli did make me wonder: Why did Geithner come out and declare that we would hit the debt ceiling on Dec. 31 – though he would use extraordinary measures to postpone its impact – if the administration were not willing to use extraordinary measures, like the much-discussed 14th Amendment option, to lift the debt ceiling. The oddest thing the White House has done in its otherwise deft (if ideologically dodgy) cliff negotiation is take that off the table. "This administration does not believe that the 14th Amendment gives the president the power to ignore the debt ceiling -- period," Jay Carney told reporters Dec. 7.

Still, the president has all the cards -- including a few that he may not be willing to play. Taxes go up Jan. 1, which solves the supposed deficit problem. It's true that good things like extended unemployment insurance and expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit and other progressive tax credits also go away Jan. 1, but there's probably never been any GOP constituency for extending those things, anyway. It's time for Obama to remind Americans who's worked the hardest to resolve this stalemate, or else I fear the phony blame game will begin to spread the shame equally.


By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Debt Ceiling Fiscal Cliff Harry Reid John Boehner Mitch Mcconnell Tea Party