[Editor's note: Updated at 1:07 Eastern time.] Remember the "fiscal cliff" – that Armageddon of spending cuts and tax hikes that threatened the send the US economy back to the age of stone tools and woolly mammoth pelts? Well, if Washington is to be believed, that was just a warmup act.
The latest word from inside the Beltway is that Republicans are girding themselves for a fight on what might be called the Fiery Chasm of Fiscal Doom:
- America will bump up against the debt ceiling, which allows the federal government to borrow more money, next month.
- The "sequester" spending cuts to defense and domestic spending outlined in the 2011 debt-ceiling deal – and postponed by the fiscal cliff deal – come due on Feb. 28.
- The stopgap bill that allows the federal government to function despite still not having a 2013 budget expires March 27.
Republicans say they will not raise the debt limit unless the increase is offset by spending cuts. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky hinted at their strategy when he told CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday that if the government has to pare back services to deal with an unchanged debt limit, it would be the president's fault.
For his part, President Obama says he won't allow Republicans to hold the debt limit hostage and won't play ball. Behind the scenes, there are rumors of a "grand bargain" that could tie up all the outstanding issues in a nice bow.
Stop us when this sounds familiar.
So why does Congress lurch from crisis to crisis, seemingly propelled by the Republicans' demand to take a pound (or more) of spending flesh at every turn?
Actually, the answer is quite simple – and, at its core, it is not a matter of political posturing or point-winning, however often it devolves into that. The cause is Congress's continued unwillingness to deal with Medicare, Social Security, and the Pentagon.
The fact is, despite all the hubbub of the past two years, the federal government has still not made any meaningful spending cuts. And that is mostly because meaningful spending cuts are virtually impossible without addressing entitlements or the Department of Defense.
Congress and the president tried to do just that in the 2011 debt-ceiling deal, yet the fiscal cliff deal shows that Washington, when faced with such cuts, apparently doesn't have the stomach to let them take effect.
So Republicans sent to Washington specifically to rein in government spending have next to nothing to show for it. And the mounting fear is that they might never have anything to show for it – that the classic Washington inertia to do nothing is slowly consuming the energy of the 2010 tea party revolution.
Senator McConnell added Sunday: "Now it's time to pivot to the single biggest threat to our country, both in the short term and the long term ... and that's reducing spending."
Indeed, some Republicans are growing increasingly desperate. They believe that Congress will never get serious about bringing its spending into line unless it is in crisis. So better to manufacture one now, and solve the problem, they say, than to let things linger and eventually become Greece.
At the same time, Washington knows that responsible, long-term fiscal planning cannot move forward until spending is brought under control – it's just that the prospect of entitlement reform or Pentagon cuts are so politically unsavory that the day of reckoning is postponed again and again.
But signs are that it is coming. Credit-rating agency Moody’s has said that “the US's credit rating could be affected ‘negatively’ if Washington fails to take further steps to rein in the deficit.” All parties know the US cannot risk further downgrades to its credit rating.
Moreover, a recent Politico poll found that 75 percent of Americans wanted to rein in deficits by cutting government spending "across the board" (though other polls have shown Americans unsupportive of changes to Medicare and Social Security).
Of course, the Republicans' kamikaze approach to entitlement cuts (with little scrutiny of the Pentagon budget) is not the only option. Reportedly, fiscal-cliff talks brought Mr. Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio close to a grand bargain that would have included $900 billion in spending cuts – including $600 billion in entitlement reform. But Obama wanted a significant amount of tax revenue in addition to these cuts – more than Mr. Boehner could countenance.
And that appears to be the issue going forward. Obama wants more tax revenue to accompany any entitlement reform, probably in the form of limiting tax breaks. Boehner and Republicans say they gave Obama tax revenue in the fiscal-cliff deal but got no spending cuts, meaning now is the time for cuts alone.
McConnell said as much Sunday. The debate over taxes on Capitol Hill "is over," he told "Face the Nation," adding that Democrats' desire to keep them on the table "underscores the voracious appetite for more taxes on the other side."
But the deeper point is that, with health-care expenses rising and America's baby boomer population putting stresses on Medicare and Social Security, entitlement reform appears inevitable. Congress's current cycle of crisis, then, appears merely to be the way that Washington comes a difficult decision in an age of red state bloggers, blue state pundits, and disgruntled Americans in the middle.
Let’s back up and fill in the background here, shall we? Representative Frank (D) of Massachusetts just retired after 16 terms in the House. For 32 years, he’s been pretty much the sharpest-tongued person on Capitol Hill, as well as cantankerous, intelligent, irritating, effective, and outrageous, often all at the same time. He once summed himself up this way: “I’m a left-handed gay Jew. I’ve never felt automatically a member of any majority."
He’s had low moments. In 1990, the House voted to reprimand him for fixing parking tickets for a live-in aide who was also a male prostitute. Republicans consider him the definition of a tax-and-spend liberal.
He’s also had highs. As chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, he helped write the 2010 Dodd-Frank act of financial-institution reforms. The left wing of the Democratic Party considers him a hero.
In the past, he insisted he was leaving Congress for good. He demurred even after President Obama tapped Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts as the nominee for secretary of State, opening up an interim Senate seat. Frank said he was just too bone tired for the job.
That’s now a nonoperative position. In a number of media interviews Friday, Frank said he’d like Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) to appoint him to Senator Kerry’s seat as interim senator until the Bay State could hold a special election later this year.
The reason for this change of heart? The first months of the Senate session will be chock-full o' nuts with interesting issues, what with the debt-limit fight, the sequester fight, and so on, all occurring at once. Frank said it might be “immodest,” but he believes his experience would help the Democratic Party at a crucial time. (He said he wouldn’t run for a full term. But who knows?)
“I think there are progressive ways to work on Social Security and Medicare. I think making the case against them [tea party Republicans] on the debt limit is important,” he told The Boston Globe on Friday. “A split emerged in the Republican Party over the fiscal cliff, with mainstream Republicans splitting with the radical right. I think it’s important for us to continue to exploit that. We need to reach out to conservative Republicans who nonetheless are willing to compromise and find a way to reach a deal.”
Hmm. We’ve got a few thoughts on this matter, unsurprisingly. The first is obvious: This is going to drive conservatives bonkers. Most interim senators are worthy placeholders who don’t engage much in partisan politics. (See “Sen. Paul Kirk (D) of Massachusetts, 2009-2010”). Sen. Barney Frank, on the other hand, would not be there just to keep the office lights on.
(Frank would be the first to point out that Ms. Malkin is mixing metaphors like she’s making soup.)
Second, has anybody heard from Governor Patrick about this? Frank has kind of put him on the spot. Maybe he (Patrick) has somebody else in mind. Can he afford to peeve the liberal wing of the state party? What would a Senate delegation composed of Frank and newly elected Elizabeth Warren try to do? If Republican Scott Brown wants to try to regain his just-lost Senate seat, he might benefit from being able to campaign against the dynamic duo of liberals.
Third, they're probably not holding a party in the White House mess to celebrate “Barney’s Back Day.” Frank is a committed opponent of possible Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel, because of the latter’s past impolitic statements about Jews and gays. (Mr. Hagel has since apologized for those words.)
Plus, as a progressive icon, Frank would be unlikely to applaud any deal the White House might try to strike with the GOP over Medicare or Social Security reforms. He might make any “grand bargain” harder to strike, from Mr. Obama’s point of view.
The debates would be more fun, though. This is a legislator who told a constituent at a 2009 town-hall meeting on health care that “trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to have an argument with a dining-room table.”
Did New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie help or hurt himself on Wednesday by blasting his own political party? In case you haven’t heard, after House Speaker John Boehner delayed a vote on a $60 billion superstorm Sandy recovery bill, Governor Christie lit up Mr. Boehner and Republican House members like they were sparklers.
The Sandy legislation “could not overcome the toxic internal politics of the House majority,” Christie said at a brutal Trenton news conference.
Adding that “palace intrigue” had helped scuttle a bill important to New Jersey, New York, and other areas hard hit by the Oct. 29 storm, Christie heaped disdain on you-know-who for something he (Christie) considered a debacle.
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“There’s only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims, the House majority and their speaker, John Boehner,” said Christie.
“It’s why the American people hate Congress,” he added, getting in another kick on the way out the door.
Christie’s bravura performance of a governor scorned is probably a big help for him in his current job, of course. For one thing, it worked, or at least appeared to. Under the pressure of negative comments from Christie, New York Rep. Peter King, and other northeastern Republicans, Boehner scheduled an initial vote Friday on a $9 billion Sandy flood insurance package, and promised that a vote on a further $51 billion in aid will take place on the first full legislative day of the next Congress, Jan. 15.
Christie is running for reelection, and his constituents are unlikely to be offended by his blunt, successful tirade. It could enter New Jersey lore, maybe as the subject of a Bruce Springsteen song. (Hey, Springsteen fan Christie can dream, can’t he? The Boss wrote a rocker about the prosaic subject of tearing down Giants Stadium in New Jersey’s Meadowlands, after all.)
But if Christie wants to run for president someday his primal scream may not help.
Yes, many voters will agree with him and admire a politician who’s willing to cross his own party to get things done. In a general election Christie would probably benefit from a press conference that looks like leadership – if you’re not John Boehner or a House GOP member.
But remember the primaries? That’s a gantlet that any 2016 contender will have to run. For the most part, Democrats and independents don’t get to vote in GOP primaries. Christie would have to appeal only to Republicans, and many of them are likely to have lingering resentments about Christie’s 2012 role.
We’re not just talking about tea party adherents who view Christie as a closet northeastern liberal – Massachusetts' Mitt Romney without the hair. Many mainstream Republicans remain unhappy with the enthusiastic way Christie embraced President Obama in the wake of Sandy’s devastation.
The right-leaning Weekly Standard, for instance, championed a possible Christie 2012 run prior to primary season. But on Wednesday their post on his Trenton press conference was headlined “Christie Craving Pork-filled Sandy Bill.”
The legislation Christie wanted passed is full of financial favors tacked on by Senate Democrats, wrote the Standard’s Daniel Halper.
“After yesterday’s fight over the ‘fiscal cliff’ deal it seems reasonable that Congress might not have been up for another battle just yet,” wrote Halper.
The National Review added that the Sandy bill is about the second wave of federal aid to the area, not the first. FEMA’s emergency funds cover initial recovery efforts. The legislation in question provides cash for rebuilding, which is a less time-sensitive requirement, wrote Daniel Foster.
“The cataclysmic tone struck by northeastern Republicans like Peter King (who is implying he could leave the party) and Chris Christie ... strikes me as unnecessary,” wrote Foster just prior to Christie’s rant.
Given that, it would sure be interesting to see how 2016 opponents (Jeb Bush, anyone?) handle Christie’s occasional anti-House GOP comments, if the New Jersey governor decides to try his hand at the national political game.
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“Obama and the Democrats are laughing at the deal they just made ... the Republicans got nothing!” Mr. Trump judged.
FISCAL CLIFF 101: 5 basic questions answered
OK then. Perhaps the former front-runner for the GOP nomination – albeit one who never actually flung his hair into the ring – could have done better. What principles would someone who wrote a book called “The Art of the Deal” have followed in pursuing cliff-avoidance legislation?
First, he’d have thought big. “Think big” is one of the “Trump cards” he listed in his 1987 book, after all.
Presumably that means he would have preferred the grand-bargain approach – one in which both looming tax hikes and budget cuts would have been avoided; Medicare, Social Security, and other entitlements reformed; the tax code scrubbed of loopholes, and the nation generally put on a fiscal path toward deficit elimination.
“[O]nly the big deal should be approved!” he tweeted back on Dec. 28.
Good luck with that. The problem here is that running the country is different from designing hotel lobbies. There are so many political participants with so many different points of view that lately, it’s amazing if they can agree what day it is. Mr. Obama and House Speaker John Boehner have tried twice now to strike a grand bargain, and they failed. Perhaps President Trump would have done better in that regard; we doubt it.
Second, Trump would have “used his leverage,” in another Trump card phrase. “The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it,” Trump wrote back in 1987.
Of course, that means he might have urged Speaker Boehner to pretend that he’d be just fine with going over the cliff. The problem with that is it would have been difficult for the GOP to shrug off raising taxes on all Americans, right? Also, Republicans aren't going to be able to pretend they are OK with deep cuts in the Pentagon budget. Move along.
In other words, the GOP had little leverage to use in this instance. That was one of Boehner’s fundamental problems.
A third 1987 Trump card he might have invoked: “have fun.” Gather everybody in the cabinet room for pizza and a screening of “The Hobbit.” Play charades and make Sen. Mitch McConnell act out the word “sequester.” Stuff like that.
OK, maybe that would have helped. But given an atmosphere in which Boehner was accosting Senate majority leader Harry Reid in the White House and using very bad language because Senator Reid had publicly criticized the GOP leadership – well, having fun wasn’t in the cards.
Perhaps Trump was just angry because he’s one of those billionaires whose taxes have just gone up. But if this deal is so bad, why is Wall Street so happy? The Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped more than 200 points at the opening bell Wednesday. Presumably Trump owns a few stocks. So far, this deal is making him money.
Could Ben Affleck head to Washington?
It seems like a long shot, but the actor and director's name has come up recently amid speculation over who will run for John Kerry's US Senate seat if the Massachusetts senator slides over to the State Department to serve as President Obama's foreign affairs chief.
Mr. Affleck didn't start up the rumor mill, but when given an opportunity to say he isn't interested, he demurred – a move guaranteed to keep the rumors flying in Washington and, of course, Massachusetts. In an interview aired Dec. 23 on CBS's "Face the Nation," Affleck said "I'm not one to get into conjecture," when host Bob Schieffer asked him directly about any US Senate aspirations.
"I do have great fondness and admiration for the political process in this country," Affleck told Mr. Schieffer, "but I'm not going to get into speculation about my political future."
"Right now," he added, "I'm really happy being involved from the outside in government, advocating for the Congolese [and] taking this movie that I made, 'Argo' – it's really become a springboard for a dialogue about our relationship with Iran."
Affleck, founder of the Eastern Congo Initiative, was in Washington to raise awareness about violence in Congo. He testified before Congress on Wednesday about the conflict and said he will make his 10th trip there next year. He also met with Senator Kerry, along with other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Interest in the seat is high. GOP Sen. Scott Brown in November narrowly lost his reelection bid to Democrat Elizabeth Warren, and he is widely presumed to be interested in running for Kerry's vacated seat, should Kerry win Senate confirmation to be secretary of State. Affleck is just one of many Democrats whose names have come up to run against him. Others include US Reps. Edward Markey, Steven Lynch, and Michael Capuano; former Congressman Marty Meehan; state senator Ben Downing; and Victoria Kennedy, widow of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. Ted Kennedy Jr., eldest son of the late senator, has decided against running for the seat, according to a Boston Globe report Monday.
Affleck, who has long campaigned for Democratic candidates and who majored in Middle Eastern studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles, would face significant challenges: a lack of any previous political experience running for office; the need to raise cash quickly (or use his own); and a crowded Democratic field. He grew up in Cambridge, Mass., and currently owns a home in the Bay State, but under state law he also wouldn't need to establish legal residency until Election Day.
And it's unclear whether Affleck, a filmmaker who seems to be reaching a new career peak behind the camera, would have an interest in trying for elected office.
But he would also not be the first actor to do so.
Surprisingly, despite the stereotype of Hollywood being full of liberals, most high-profile thespians and entertainers who have moved into politics have been Republicans.
Ronald Reagan, arguably the most successful and well-known actor-turned-politician, springs to mind. But there's also Arnold Schwarzenegger – who, now that he's finished two terms as California governor, has returned to acting.
There's Sonny Bono, the musician and actor who was elected mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., before twice being elected a US congressman. And Fred Thompson, best known for his role on TV's "Law & Order," and who played a US president three times in his acting career. Thompson served in the US Senate for eight years and later ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008. Clint Eastwood's career as an elected official has been confined to two terms as mayor of Carmel, Calif. But he made bigger political news this year when, during the GOP convention to nominate Mitt Romney, he gave an odd – and widely criticized – speech to an empty chair.
Jesse Ventura, the actor and professional wrestler who became Minnesota's governor, eschewed both Democrats and Republicans, running first as the candidate of the Reform Party of Minnesota (he later switched to the state's Independence Party).
Democratic actors who make the move from entertainment to political office are fewer, with Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota as the most prominent. A former SNL comedian and talk-show host, Senator Franken barely eked out a Senate win in 2008 in a hotly contested election.
Talk of Affleck as a candidate may be simply a combination of wishful thinking by media pundits and Democrats worried that Senator Brown needs a high-profile opponent.
Among other hurdles, it's unclear why Affleck would want to leave a successful career as both a filmmaker and actor. Having directed three critically acclaimed movies – and considered a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination this winter – Affleck finally seems to have laid to rest the embarrassment of past films like "Gigli" and "Surviving Christmas."
A move to Congress – where approval ratings haven't hit 25 percent in three years, and more often are stuck below 20 percent – would hardly be a reputation-builder.
So House Speaker John Boehner whiffed with "Plan B." He couldn’t get the Republican caucus to pass his own bill extending Bush-era tax cuts for all but those with incomes over $1 million. If you’re President Obama, sitting in the Oval Office thinking about the chaos on Capitol Hill, are you happy or sad? Is this good or bad for the administration’s negotiating position?
At first glance it appears to be a happy event for Democrats, politically speaking. Mr. Boehner’s leverage in negotiations might have been increased by House passage of Plan B. He’d have shown that the GOP had a plan of its own to avoid the "fiscal cliff" and blame from voters. Mr. Obama might have had to edge closer to Boehner’s position, giving up more revenue enhancement and promising larger reductions in spending, to produce any kind of grand fiscal deal.
“Obama already had the upper hand in these negotiations – he was reelected just over a month ago – and Boehner knew it. What happened on the House floor Thursday night made a bad bargaining situation for Boehner that much worse,” writes analyst Chris Cillizza on The Fix Washington Post political blog.
With many House conservatives balking at Boehner’s tax plan, the Republican Party appears split and confused. The speaker is the party’s highest ranking elected leader, but he can’t control his own caucus or chamber. It’s hard to see who would replace him, but if a serious candidate emerges it is possible Boehner’s position is in doubt.
“It’s hard to see how Speaker Boehner continues from here – or why he would want to,” writes David Kurtz, managing editor of the generally left-leaning Talking Points Memo web site.
But politics (outside of elections) isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game. It’s possible that Obama this morning is grimly contemplating a rockier road ahead.
For one thing, who is Obama now negotiating with? The speaker? House conservatives? Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell? The White House had hoped for a debt reduction package of $4 trillion or so, spread out over a decade. It now appears there is no general on the other side who can order his troops to rally around such a deal.
Second, what’s the process? Prior to the failure of Plan B, things had been proceeding according in a typical Washington fashion, which is to say, with the predictable conflict and stilted mannerisms of kabuki. Now all is chaos. The House has gone home for Christmas. There might not be enough time remaining to cobble together even a short-term deal to keep deep spending cuts and tax increases from occurring in a fiscal cliff scenario.
Sure, polls show more voters would blame the GOP than the White House if the nation plunges over the cliff. But the post-cliff scenario is unpredictable. Who knows how voters would actually react, especially if the standoff lingers for weeks? Plus, the economy is likely to suffer from even a short cliff plunge. Just wait to see what happens to stock prices.
“The grim reality in Washington is that nobody really knows whether or where there’s a path to avoid the fiscal cliff, in the aftermath of House Republicans’ stunning failure to pass Speaker John Boehner’s Plan B,” writes long-time Wall Street Journal Washington columnist Gerald Seib this morning.
There may be two likely scenarios going forward. In one, Boehner works with the White House to craft a solution that can pass with the support of perhaps half of his caucus, plus House Democrats. Some liberals are happy about the possibility of this coming to pass. Shorn of the need to placate the conservatives, Boehner could tack to the left to get a deal done, in this view.
The other scenario is simply the absence of the first one. Perhaps Boehner will decline to bring forward a plan his own caucus does not support – he remains the most powerful lawmaker in the House, after all. Perhaps he is deposed and replaced by a more ideological GOP leader. Perhaps he planned for Plan B to fail, to demonstrate to Obama where House Republicans really stand.
“Despite all the overheated rhetoric, Obama and Boehner aren’t that far apart on the actual numbers.... The path to a deal remains. The only question is whether the speaker and the president can walk down it together,” writes Chris Frates of the National Journal this morning.
As you may have heard, actor/director Ben Affleck visited Capitol Hill this week to testify about violence in Congo. But the real news for political junkies was that he didn’t totally, 100 percent, flat-out deny that he might be interested in running for the Massachusetts Senate seat that would become vacant if – as looks likely – Sen. John Kerry (D) is tapped to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as the next secretary of State.
Asked about the possibility, according to Politico, Mr. Affleck responded: “That’s not what I’m here to talk about.”
The point being, of course, that he didn’t say “no.” And in Washington, anything less than a Shermanesque “I will not run even if you promise to somehow round up and destroy all existing copies of ‘Gigli’ ” statement is seen as "leaving the door open." Adding to the intrigue, Affleck met privately with Senator Kerry during his visit.
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Celebrity rumors aside, some actual news about the Massachusetts Senate race came Thursday: the release of a poll showing that outgoing GOP Sen. Scott Brown, who lost his reelection bid in November to Elizabeth Warren, would be a strong favorite to fill Kerry’s seat.
According to the survey by WBUR/MassINC, voters said they’d pick Senator Brown over a generic Democratic candidate by 47 percent to 39 percent. Roughly the same percentage – 47 percent to 40 percent – said they’d choose Brown over the current Democratic governor, Deval Patrick (who has said he’s not interested in running). The spread was even wider when Brown was matched against other current and former state politicians such as Rep. Edward Markey (D) and former Rep. Marty Meehan (D). Brown was given a 58 percent favorable rating overall, the highest of anyone tested in the poll.
All this is, for the most part, a reflection of name recognition. But in a special election – which takes place within a highly compressed time frame – name recognition can be crucial. So it’s easy to see why Massachusetts Democrats are eagerly (frantically?) grasping at the ever-so-faint hope of a possible Ben Affleck candidacy.
Or, really, someone – anyone – with a famous name. The other big rumor emerging this week was that one of the sons of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, Ted Kennedy Jr., might be interested in running. The power of the Kennedy name in Massachusetts is still such that Mr. Kennedy, an investment banker who resides in Connecticut, would probably become an early favorite for the Democratic nomination.
Senator Kennedy’s widow, Vicki Kennedy, has also been mentioned as a possible temporary “placeholder” appointment, as has former governor and onetime presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, although Mr. Dukakis himself has dismissed the likelihood of such a move.
So what about the prospect of a "Sen. Ben Affleck?" Well, we suppose it's no more unrealistic than “Sen. Ashley Judd.” Affleck, a native of Cambridge, Mass., has been one of the more politically engaged celebrities in recent years, ever since he hit the trail to campaign for Kerry back in 2004. And certainly, famous people have entered the halls of Congress before – most recently, Minnesota Sen. Al Franken (D). But Senator Franken’s celebrity was on a somewhat less-stratospheric plane than Affleck’s.
The real question is whether Affleck would actually choose to leave a productive career in Hollywood to join an institution that many of its current members describe as frustrating and broken.
We wouldn’t count on it.
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The keeper of the GOP’s antitax oath has rendered judgment on House Speaker John Boehner’s fallback "fiscal cliff" plan that would allow Bush-era tax cuts to expire only for millionaires: It is not a tax increase.
So decrees Americans for Tax Reform, the conservative advocacy group led by antitax activist Grover Norquist. With that step, the group gives a measure of political cover to congressional Republicans who back the speaker's plan to retain current low tax rates for all but those with incomes higher than $1 million.
“Republicans supporting this bill are this week affirming to their constituents in writing that this bill – the sole purpose of which is to prevent tax increases – is consistent with the pledge they made to them,” said Americans for Tax Reform, in a statement. “In ATR’s analysis, it is extremely difficult – if not impossible – to fault these Republicans’ assertion.”
But the statement gives only partial cover, because other conservative groups that throw millions of dollars into political campaigns rattled their sabres on Wednesday, warning Republicans to steer clear of any proposal that does not extend the Bush-era tax rates for all Americans."
If the Republicans support this tax increase, they will lose control of the House in the 2014 elections.... Not only that, but a whole lot of members who thought they were safe and thought they could get away with this will lose in their own districts," says conservative activist and fundraising heavy-hitter Brent Bozell.
"This is precisely what happened to them six years ago, and they've already forgotten that lesson," he adds. "Republicans were tossed out of the majority when they broke their word on spending. Now they're breaking their word again, and it's not just spending, it's taxes on top of that. Fiscal conservatives just won't stand for this."
More than two dozen organizations joined Mr. Bozell in opposing any tax increase. Still, the ATR statement is particularly important for Republican lawmakers, who now know that any vote to extend some but not all of the Bush-era tax cuts, which expire at year's end, would not be considered as a violation of Mr. Norquist's Taxpayer Protection Pledge. More than 90 percent of congressional Republicans and a handful of Democratic lawmakers have signed the pledge, an important political symbol for conservative politicians.
“In this Congress the House has already voted twice to prevent any tax increases on any American," notes the ATR statement issued Wednesday. "When viewed with this in mind, and considering this [Boehner] tax bill contains no tax increases of any kind – in fact, it permanently prevents them – matters become more clear. Having finally seen actual legislation in writing, ATR is now able to make its determination about a legislative proposal related to the fiscal cliff. ATR will not consider a vote for this measure a violation of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge.”
Until now, Norquist had said only that whatever deal Congress and the White House struck on taxes should have to pass a “laugh test” from voters in the long run.
The House is scheduled to take up Boehner's bill on Thursday, say GOP lawmakers. House Democrats oppose it, and Senate Democrats say the bill would be dead on arrival at the Senate. The White House has said it would veto the measure should it somehow clear Congress.
Liberal Sens. Charles Schumer (D) of New York and Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa argued Wednesday that the measure would actually raise taxes because it would not extend three provisions, part of the 2009 economic stimulus legislation, that benefit lower-income families, college students, and families with more than three children.
The Boehner bill would retain capital gain and dividend tax rates at 15 percent for those earning less than $1 million in household income, but it would raise those rates to 20 percent for Americans earning more. Without a congressional fix, those rates would reset at year's end to more than 40 percent for all taxpayers.
Though Americans for Tax Reform says the Boehner bill passes the sniff test, several other conservative organizations have savaged it.
“On the substance, this bill is anti-growth,” read a legislative alert from the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, urging lawmakers to vote against it. “It increases tax rates for those making over $1 million while also raising taxes on capital gains and dividends. We don't buy into the Washington-speak, suggesting that these are actually tax cuts.”
The conservative Americans for Prosperity, too, urged lawmakers to oppose it, saying congressional Republicans had already extended tax rates for all Americans and so needed no further fallback legislation. Boehner has characterized the bill as a fallback measure should talks fail with the White House over devising a broader debt- and deficit-reduction package.
“All this Plan B proposal would do is put Republicans on record embracing the Left’s divisive and arbitrary income threshold,” Americans for Prosperity said Wednesday in a statement. “It would also begin a never-ending quest to move that higher rate down to lower income thresholds, as everyone knows that there is not enough tax revenue in the upper brackets to solve the nation’s runaway spending addiction.”
What do these conservative groups want?As the Club for Growth's Andy Roth put it, they'd rather go over the fiscal cliff – in which case taxes would rise on all American taxpayers and spending reductions decried by both parties would go into effect – and then move on to a fight over the national debt ceiling, which the federal government will reach in the first quarter of 2013. By threatening to refuse to raise the national debt limit, the speaker and congressional Republicans will have enough leverage over Democrats to win the reductions they seek in entitlement programs and spending, believe Mr. Roth and like-minded colleagues such as conservative advocacy group Heritage Action.
What’s first lady Michelle Obama doing to get ready for Christmas?
After all, during holiday receptions more than 90,000 people tromp through the White House to look at the decorations, munch cookies, and listen to the Marine Band. That puts the impending visit of your Schenectady cousins in perspective, doesn’t it? Suddenly three preteens, two accountants, and one aging beagle doesn’t sound like too heavy a load.
“I love that it is the one time of the year when we really open up the White House. We have thousands and thousands of visitors just streaming through every day,” said FLOTUS. “It’s beautiful, it looks great, the smells are magnificent.”
She and Mrs. Hager went on to have a nice chat about how magical it is to live in a (taxpayer-subsidized) mansion during the holidays. It was all in preparation for a “A White House Christmas: First Families Remember” special running Thursday at 8 p.m. on NBC. Several comments jumped out to us:
FIRST DOGS RULE
“Bo is the most popular member of our family,” said Mrs. Obama. What she didn’t add was that the Obama’s Portuguese Water Dog is also a star of this year’s White House decorations. In the East Room, a life-size Bo replica is the centerpiece, and handmade “Boflakes” hang from the trees, according to a tour book prepared for visitors.
Bo’s also the leading canine of “Bo Ho Ho”, a one-minute video of 2012 White House holiday preparations. We must say that in our judgment he’s a bit stiff as an actor. He’s no Barney – George W. Bush’s Scottish terrier, whose “Barney Cam VII: A Red White and Blue Christmas” would have won an Oscar for Best Dog-Based Political Infomerical, if that was an Academy Award category.
NO PRESENT FOR POTUS
That’s what his wife said, anyway. “The president and I, we don’t exchange gifts. We say, we’re in Hawaii, Merry Christmas,” the first lady told the ex-first daughter.
She’s referring there to their annual holiday trip to Hawaii, which occurs after all the tours are done and their official host and hostess responsibilities are over.
Will the Obamas get to go on this trip if negotiations over the “fiscal cliff” remain unresolved? We can’t answer that – the White House won’t say. But according to Politico, federal authorities are already setting up security air and sea no-go spaces in preparation for a POTUS Hawaiian visit.
“The key air restriction surrounds Koko Head on the southeastern side of Oahu, near where Obama has vacationed in the past,” writes Politico’s Josh Gerstein.
MICHELLE OBAMA’S SECRET TALENT
When they’re in Hawaii they like to do “crazy stuff,” said Mrs. Obama. For one thing they have a family talent show.
“Everyone has to participate, the moms and dads, whether it’s singing or reading a poem. The kids will construct a play of some sort,” said FLOTUS.
She added that she did not know what she would do in the show, but even if she did, she would not disclose it to the public. That information is classified “embarrassing,” apparently.
We know – she could pretend to address an empty chair! Or she could do Joe Biden impressions. Just putting ideas out there.
As a final note, this year’s White House holiday theme is “Joy to all.” Fifty-four trees in the executive mansion are decorated to reflect this theme in some manner. The tradition of naming a theme began with Jacqueline Kennedy, who as first lady designated a Nutcracker theme one year for her daughter Caroline.
Instead of a big, year-end showdown over taxes and spending, it’s looking as if lawmakers may wind up quietly settling the matter in the coming days, without much fighting or fanfare. The simple fact is, it’s hard to envision anyone choosing to dig in their heels in an ugly stalemate over fiscal matters when the entire nation is grieving the murders of 20 schoolchildren and their teachers.
On Monday, President Obama met again with House Speaker John Boehner – presumably to discuss in earnest the offer Mr. Boehner made over the weekend, in which he agreed for the first time to raise tax rates. According to reports, Boehner’s proposal would raise rates on those earning more than $1 million a year, along with closing some loopholes and eliminating deductions, for a total of $1 trillion in new tax revenues over 10 years.
The proposal also calls for about $1 trillion in spending cuts, at least some of which would come from entitlement programs. In addition, there are reports that Boehner also has agreed to raise the debt ceiling – averting another potential crisis – in return for the broader cuts in spending.
While Democrats say they have some concerns about the proposal (Mr. Obama has been calling for raising tax rates for those earning more than $250,000 a year, and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi has expressed strong opposition to cutting Medicare), it’s becoming clear that a real fiscal cliff deal now appears to be on the horizon.
Not long ago, this breakthrough would have been seen as a big deal. But, understandably, it barely registered amid all the coverage of the Newtown shootings.
And while conservatives and liberals from both parties may not like certain elements of the eventual deal, we don't anticipate them putting up a big fight in the days to come. We could be wrong, of course – in the past, we’ve made a point of never underestimating the far right’s resistance to tax hikes, or the left’s resistance to cutting entitlements. But for Congress to continue to stage a petty, manufactured “crisis” over fiscal matters – at a time when the nation has just experienced a real crisis, with all its heart-rending effects – would, we imagine, not be received well by voters. We think lawmakers get that.
The proposal has the political advantage of not forcing Republicans to actually vote on raising taxes – since they’d simply be letting the Bush-era tax cuts expire for those earning more than $1 million. And they’d get to vote to extend tax cuts for everyone else.
Lawmakers now have an opportunity to make the compromises they need to make for the good of the country, and move on, without all the needless “cliff-hanging” drama. We think there's a good chance they'll take it.