Obama-Boehner 'fiscal cliff' handshake: Could it actually hold?

After a friendly meeting on the ‘fiscal cliff’, President Obama shook hands with House Speaker John Boehner. Maybe it’s the holiday spirit, but there’s cautious optimism that bipartisanship might not be dead in Washington after all.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Barack Obama acknowledges House Speaker John Boehner at the White House in Washington Friday as he hosted a meeting of the congressional leadership to discuss the deficit and the economy.

Fresh from reelection, President Obama met Friday with leaders of an unpopular Congress, including House Speaker John Boehner, to discuss how to avoid leaving the most powerful country in the world hanging like Wile E. Coyote off a “fiscal cliff.”

It was the first such powwow in six months. And as it broke up and members headed out of town for Thanksgiving, Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner reached across the table for a warm handshake – a brief grip that seemed to encapsulate an electorate’s cautious hope that a polarized government could strike a deal that raises revenues while downsizing entitlement programs and other spending that have begun to threaten the nation’s solvency.

So, will – can – that “fiscal cliff” handshake hold?

To be sure, the reelection of President Obama sent a powerful message to Republicans, who for the first time since a tea party wave in 2010 yanked the House into a staunch antitax position felt they had room to take a different tack from the corrosive 2011 debt limit standoff that created a set of automatic spending cuts to take effect Jan 1. Along with the looming end to the Bush tax cuts, those spending cuts comprise the “fiscal cliff” that some fear could plunge the country into recession, or worse.

On the other hand, the election gave Democrats more a deadline than a mandate, a sort of affirmation that Obama’s legacy could well ride on his handling of America’s rough-idling economy.

RECOMMENDED: Could 'fiscal cliff' push US into recession? Four questions answered.

A lot is at stake over the next few days as staffers begin to work out the details of the outline that Congressional leaders said they agreed to.

For now at least, President Obama is holding to his demand that families earning more than $250,000 chip in more taxes, which he says could bring in $1.6 trillion over the next 10 years.

Speaker Boehner says Republicans are willing to consider additional revenues. Whether he meant new taxes remains unclear. But on its face, the statement indicated a change from the summer of 2011, when a majority of Americans concluded that tea party Republicans were actively seeking gridlock in order to force Democrats toward spending cuts.

“To show our seriousness, we’ve put revenue on the table as long as it’s accompanied by significant spending cuts,” said Boehner.

Commenting on a recent Washington Post-Pew Research poll that shows 53 percent of Americans leaning toward blaming Republicans again if Congress can’t strike a deal with Obama, columnist Froma Harrop notes that, “Understanding this, thoughtful Republicans are feeling freer to risk the tea partyers’ wrath and cooperate with Democrats. The teams may disagree on much, but at least they’re now playing in the same ballpark.”

One big question is whether the House, where a tea party caucus still has the power to scuttle a deal, will agree to new taxes without philosophical concessions from Democrats in return.

There’s been talk in tea party circles about ending tax breaks for specific interests with ties to liberals, such as Hollywood’s entertainment industry, and even limiting the amount Americans can write off as charitable donations. Some Republicans have also pushed for a “minimum tax” that all Americans have to pay, so that the approximately 47 percent of Americans who don’t mail the government a check every year have, as pundits have put it, “skin in the game.”

But on more concrete points, political experts noted that the meeting between Obama, Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gave some clues as to a path forward.

Most importantly, both sides signaled that they are willing to fight elements in their own parties in order to get a deal done. Democrats signaled this by saying that entitlement reform is on the table; Republicans did so by suggesting that they’ll entertain new sources of revenue.

Moreover, a Democratic aide who sat in on the meeting told Reuters that Republicans appeared to outline their position even more clearly by what they didn’t say, including a possible concession on Obama’s insistence that wealthier Americans should pay more taxes.

"The major development of the meeting was we made it clear our position is ... we should freeze tax rates for the middle class and raise rates on the top [income] families," the aide told the wire service. "It was notable that neither Boehner nor McConnell shot that idea down."

To be sure, the glimmers of optimism that emerged from Friday’s meeting may flicker and fade. Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, told the New York Times that “it’s gotten harder after the election [to compromise]. As you might imagine, positions have hardened.”

How deep the compromises go, and how firm the handshake between Obama and Boehner really is, will play out in short order as Congress has only weeks to strike a deal.

“Our challenge is to make sure that we are able to cooperate together, work together, find some common ground, make some tough compromises, build some consensus, and to do the people’s business,” Obama said.

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