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Opinion | America will not careen off the media's popularized 'fiscal cliff'

Andrew's Assessments

By Andrew Geisler
On November 29, 2012

When you hear the media discuss this big, scary, looming monster called the fiscal cliff, the most important point to remember is that President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner very nearly came to a deal last summer in similar circumstances.

The Speaker agreed to give a little bit on revenues, the President on Medicare, but somewhere the deal broke down.

Bob Woodward's latest book The Price of Politics is devoted to the aforementioned negotiations, which were framed around House Republicans refusal to raise our nation's debt limit.

They wanted equal cuts to offset the increase. President Obama and Congressional Democrats countered saying they would give Republicans some cuts if they were willing to give on revenue increases.

House Republicans were indignant. After all, 2010 was their mandate election - one to cut spending without raises taxes, not to continue to fund the government at nearly the same level and increase the tax burden.

These tea party members of Congress felt they had the American people on their side, and the debt limit-raising vote became their Pickett's Charge.

Cut spending, or default.

This quickly became the position of the House Republican Conference.

Democrats laughed, knowing they still held the White House and Senate, thus salvaging some serious leverage in such negotiations.

Speaker Boehner and President Obama fought it out between the 40-yard lines, trying to find an acceptable deal for both sides to avert catastrophe and start the hard process of paying down our crippling debt.

Both men understood the mission.

Both were clearly constrained by their rank and file members and personal ideological blinders, but engaged in the negotiations with good faith.

At one point when it seemed a deal had been cut, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and wunderkind Paul Ryan begged the Speaker to withdraw - telling him a big deal would almost certainly guarantee the President's reelection (it turns out he didn't need their help).

And at the end, when a deal appeared to be done, the Speaker withdrew, saying the President "moved the goalpost" on revenue. But it was clear: the Speaker probably couldn't deliver his conference.

That's when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's legislative acumen became an asset to our country.

The two agreed to raise the debt ceiling, and set up a Super Committee to reduce our debt; if the Committee failed (as it was basically designed to do), sequestration cuts across the federal government would kick in. Hitting sacred cows like defense spending.

The cuts are designed to kick in at the same time the Bush Tax cuts expire, which would cause taxes to go up substantially on all Americans.

So unless lawmakers act, economists agree, the combination of the tax cuts expiration would be like an insta-recession spray for our economy.

According to the media and the D.C. elites, this means we should all be deeply afraid - as POLITICO's Jim VandeHei said on Morning Joe last week, some lawmakers just might be crazy enough to go off this fiscal cliff!

Negotiations have started slow, but top hands on the Hill and in the White House have been prepping for some time - basically worrying about getting a deal done ever since the Super Committee failed to meet its charge.

I find it highly unlikely that these folks will fail this time.

Especially since Republicans have started dumping on Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge, and if the President agrees on any deal, it will be hard for the liberal members of his party, who oppose entitlement cuts, to say no to their president.

Everybody knows what this deal needs to entail. Serious spending cuts, and a moderate amount of targeted tax revenue increases. It will be a tough pill to swallow, but a necessary one to get us back on the path to fiscal sanity.

The leadership is quite likely to come to a deal - the issue is if their friends will come along.

And if the entrenched partisans on either side get in the way and won't go along with the deal that's reached, it's highly likely that they would blink and at least pass continuing resolutions to avoid a recession.

In Washington parlance, that means kick the can down the road.

And while some commentators feel a catastrophe is the only way we'll ever start dealing with our debt, it's probably going to take more than an arbitrary deadline lawmakers set for themselves to get there.

And I think the almost-deal last time gives us cause for optimism. The framework is there, and the force of leadership in Washington is strong - no matter how bold random congressman from Georgia sounds, he's probably going to vote the way his Speaker wants him to.

The force of the Presidency is even stronger. You better have some serious backup if you want to buck your president - you also better know how to navigate your way through Congress without good committee assignments or help from national leaders.

The fiscal cliff has been framed poorly from the start - it isn't a cliff, it's an opportunity.

Will our leaders kick the can down the road again, or choose to do what they're supposed to?

Actually lead and help us to avoid fiscal calamity.

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