Giving the appearance of movement in fiscal talks

Giving the appearance of movement in fiscal talks
Giving the appearance of movement in fiscal talks
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It’s been about a week since House Speaker John Boehner’s “Plan B” fiasco left congressional Republicans divided and directionless, and since then, there hasn’t been so much as a hint of progress in the larger fiscal process. With looming deadlines just a few days away, there have been literally no efforts to even try to reach a resolution.

That’s about to change. The Senate is already back in session, and House members will start reaching DC soon for a Sunday session. What’s more, for good or ill, we’ll at least see the appearance of movement among top officials today.

President Obama will meet with Congressional leaders on Friday, and House Republicans summoned lawmakers back for a Sunday session, in a last-ditch effort to avert a fiscal crisis brought on by automatic tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to hit next week.

Republicans expressed a flicker of hope Thursday that a deal could still be reached to at least avert most of the tax increases on Jan. 1, to prevent a sudden cut in payments to medical providers treating Medicare patients and to extend expiring unemployment benefits. But both parties’ leaders said time is running out.

“Here we are, five days from the New Year, and we might finally start talking,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader.

McConnell’s chest-thumping is, of course, misplaced. Obama has been talking quite a bit to Boehner, offering up all kinds of concessions, in the hopes of reaching an agreement. When they got close, the Speaker walked away and spent critical time on a pointless p.r. stunt. McConnell, meanwhile, has been hiding, and when he has piped up, he’s demonstrated unnerving confusion about the basics of the debate.

Regardless, today there will at least be an in-person conversation among officials who are, at least in theory, in a position to reach a deal.

The next question is pretty straightforward: what is it, exactly, these folks have to talk about?

Putting aside all the posturing, press releases, and finger pointing, the fact remains that nothing has changed except the calendar. Republicans still don’t intend to compromise, don’t want to present specific ideas to further their own goals, and don’t intend to act until the president negotiates with himself, coming up with a plan filled with preemptive concessions, predicated on guesses as to what GOP officials might find acceptable.

So what’s the point of today’s White House chat? I suspect one of two scenarios is true:

1. Participants have been very quietly working out the details of a compromise, and today’s meeting is about sealing the deal while working out a legislative strategy. They’re closer than is publicly known, and today, they’ll try to work out the final details.

2. Everyone knows failure is inevitable, and there’s no way a deal can be reached with Republican extremists, especially with so little time remaining, so today’s meeting is motivated by theatrics – they’ll go through the motions so no one can say they didn’t at least try to sit in a room and talk to one another.

If I were a betting man, I’d put money on the latter.