'Fiscal cliff' meeting at White House: Will it be 'Lincoln' moment for Obama?

Many Senate Republicans say that with Congress deadlocked on averting the fiscal cliff, it is up to Obama to force a deal. The lesson from the movie 'Lincoln,' they say, is 'the president has to lead.'

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama returns a Marine honor guard's salute as he steps off the Marine One helicopter and walks on the South Lawn at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 27, as he returned early from his Hawaii vacation for meetings on the fiscal cliff.

The Friday afternoon meeting with congressional leaders at the White House represents a potential “Lincoln” moment for President Obama as time has effectively run out to cut a deal to avert the Jan. 1 “fiscal cliff” of spending cuts and tax hikes.

That’s the view, anyway, of many Senate Republicans, back in session this week, who say that, with Congress gridlocked, it’s now all up to Mr. Obama to produce a plan that can both cut deficits and win bipartisan support.

“To get hard things done, the president has to lead,” says Sen. Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri, referencing the must-see film of the year for Washington insiders, “Lincoln.”

“Virtually every member of the Senate, I think, has seen this new movie on Lincoln, and the lesson of that movie is that to get hard things done the president has to decide he wants something done,” he adds.

In “Lincoln” the movie, an intensely engaged, hands-on president consolidates Republican ranks on the need for an amendment abolishing slavery, while peeling off enough Democratic votes to win by argument or raw political muscle.

President Lincoln’s effort to pass an amendment abolishing slavery took months. Obama has four days to find a way around some $600 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts set to take effect on Jan. 1.

Moreover, the 3 p.m. Oval Office meeting marks the first time the president has met directly with all four congressional leaders on the fiscal cliff since mid-November. With Congress gridlocked and House Republicans in disarray, it’s not clear that the Obama White House has the capacity or the will to take responsibility for the outcome.

For what it’s worth, Obama is winning the fiscal cliff battle in public opinion polls. A Gallup poll released this week finds that 54 percent of Americans approve of his handling of the fiscal cliff negotiations, compared with 26 percent who back the Republican leaders. While most Americans had been confident that Congress would resolve the fiscal cliff by Jan. 1, that confidence level dropped this week to just 50 percent.

"Blunt's remarks show how intractable this situation is. The GOP doesn't want to take the blame for proposing anything, and instead wants to blame the White House for not doing the same," says longtime congressional budget analyst Stan Collender,a partner at Qorvis Communications in Washington, in an e-mail.

"The White House sees no reason to bail out the GOP, whose approval rating is in the 20s while the president's is in the 50s," he adds.

Until Friday, bipartisan negotiations over the fiscal cliff have mainly involved the president and House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, who was forced to pull his fallback “Plan B” from a floor vote last week after protests in GOP ranks. Friday’s meeting will also include Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California, along with Vice President Biden.

Until a call from the president on Wednesday, Senator McConnell says he had had no contact from any Democrat on the fiscal cliff since Thanksgiving. “The phone never rang, so here we are five days from the New Year and we might start talking,” he said in a floor speech on Thursday.

On the House side, Speaker Boehner, who faces a reelection for his post on Jan. 3, says the House has already passed legislation on May 10 and Aug. 1 to avert the entire fiscal cliff, so now the "Senate must act." 

"Speaker Boehner will attend a meeting with congressional leaders at the White House, where he will continue to stress that the House has already passed legislation to avert the entire fiscal cliff and now the Senate must act," spokesman Brendan Buck said in a statement on Thursday.

With no new offers from Republicans or Democrats on Capitol Hill, say many congressional analysts, it's up to a president who has little incentive to shoulder a burden that the congressional leaders themselves have failed to take up.

"It’s going to go over the fiscal cliff, because it seems to be in everybody’s interest politically to do so," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., who is now interviewing senators on bipartisanship.

While Democrats are stronger in a new Congress, he says, "Boehner’s interest [is] to get past his election for speaker," meaning both sides benefit from extending negotiations beyond the deadline.

“The president's position is so strong,” he adds, “that from his position, it doesn't matter which side of Jan. 1. the effort is made."

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