This may be overly optimistic – maybe even Charlie Brown-kicking-the-football optimistic – but there are encouraging signs that this postelection Congress is serious about averting the pitfalls of the notorious “fiscal cliff.”
Over the weekend, two key Republicans, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rep. Peter King of New York, jettisoned the party’s anti-tax-increase pledge and joined other senior Republicans in saying they were willing to work to find ways to generate additional government revenues.
King said that “everything should be on the table,” presumably including tax increases for the wealthy, but Graham stuck to the party’s position that any increase in tax rates is unacceptable. He proposed capping tax deductions for upper-income Americans, which would have much the same effect, bringing to mind the Washington adage that if the name bothers you, then change the name.
Meanwhile, House Republicans, chastened by the loss of eight seats in the election, seem more amenable to listening to their speaker, John Boehner of Ohio, whose efforts to reach a “grand bargain” on the deficit with the White House were torpedoed by the more extreme wing of his own membership.
Boehner has tightened control of the House Republican Conference, where some of the party’s more radical ideas had originated. Among other moves, he successfully helped install Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state as conference chairwoman, the No. 4 position in the House GOP leadership.
And relations with House Republican leader Eric Cantor of Virginia seem much improved. Cantor – who made no secret of his desire to replace Boehner as speaker, preferably sooner rather than later – seems to have moderated his ambitions.
Supposedly the staffs of the two sides have been working on a two-step accommodation, one that would at least temporarily get Congress past the tax issue and finesse an automatic across-the-board cut in federal spending set to hit in January.
Members of the congressional supercommittee that unsuccessfully tried to draw up a comprehensive debt solution last summer are said to be meeting in small groups.
For his part, President Barack Obama has named Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner as his chief negotiator in congressional deficit-reduction talks, apparently in hopes that some new blood on his team would get the talks off to a fresh start.
The principals are in place; the issues are known; talk of compromise is in the air; and the fact is that this is an issue Congress has to resolve. If Congress fails to act quickly, the question then becomes: How much economic damage are lawmakers willing to inflict on the country before they finally settle the matter?