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'Fiscal cliff': Is Washington missing its chance to 'go big'?

President Obama and Congress are preparing to have another go at a deal on the fiscal cliff, but more and more it's looking like an opportunity for something grand to be wasted.

By Staff writer / December 26, 2012

President Barack Obama waves as he leaves the podium after speaking about the fiscal cliff in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, Friday.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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The “fiscal cliff” was supposed to offer Washington the chance to “go big,” to take on the nation’s federal debt and deficit situation in a serious way.

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Instead, Congress and President Obama look as if they’re going to go small – and that’s if they get anything done at all before 2013.

The current negotiations are a “horrible waste” of a great opportunity to fix America’s fiscal trajectory, says Rep. Steve LaTourette (R) of Ohio, who is retiring.

“The opportunity is there,” he says.

But Washington hasn’t seized it.

First, there’s the immediate state of negotiations on the fiscal cliff that make any serious deal between Wednesday and the new year a heavy lift. With only five days left before more than $600 billion in higher taxes and lower government spending are scheduled to hit the economy, Washington’s power players aren’t even in the same place, much less in the negotiating game.

House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio sent his troops home indefinitely after his fallback fiscal cliff legislation – a tactical maneuver stemming from his negotiations with the White House – couldn’t muster enough support from House conservatives last week.

Mr. Obama is returning to the White House late Wednesday evening from his vacation in Hawaii, and the Democrat-led Senate will be back to work on Thursday.

Before leaving town last week, the president asked congressional leaders to consider not the sweeping “grand bargain” on the nation’s debt that he had sought, but a far less ambitious package. Principally, one that would extend the Bush-era tax cuts for middle-class Americans, allow longer unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless, and that would, nebulously, lay “the groundwork for further work on both growth and deficit reduction.”

“That's an achievable goal,” the president said just a few hours before jetting off to Hawaii. “That can get done in 10 days.”

But even that modest target may be a long shot.

Stan Collender, a former House Budget Committee staffer, thinks there’s a 90 percent chance the political class turns up no accord with the current state of affairs.

“Even though it will be one of the worst possible outcomes economically, it's hard to argue with the procedural simplicity of doing nothing, because nothing would have to be debated, passed in the House and Senate, compromised, or signed by the president,” Mr. Collender writes. “No votes, caucus meetings, press conferences or negotiating sessions.”

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