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Obama eyes smaller, not-so-grand bargain

With just five days to go before a series of sweeping fiscal deadlines, policymakers in Washington are no closer to a resolution.

With just five days to go before a series of sweeping fiscal deadlines, policymakers in Washington are no closer to a resolution. Congress left town last Thursday; President Obama departed Friday; and there have been "no talks" between party leaders or between the White House and GOP officials since Friday.

But before leaving for a holiday weekend with his family, the president spoke briefly to reporters, and hinted at a new way out of the current mess.

For those who can't watch clips online, this was the part of Obama's comments that struck me as the most noteworthy:

"In the next few days, I've asked leaders of Congress to work towards a package that prevents a tax hike on middle-class Americans, protects unemployment insurance for 2 million Americans, and lays the groundwork for further work on both growth and deficit reduction. That's an achievable goal. That can get done in 10 days."Once this legislation is agreed to, I expect Democrats and Republicans to get back to Washington and have it pass both chambers. And I will immediately sign that legislation into law, before January 1st of next year. It's that simple."

Well, it certainly sounds simple, but given the extremism of House Republicans, and Senate Republicans' willingness to filibuster literally every measure of any consequence, it's best to temper expectations.

But take a closer look at the kind of proposal the president sketched out here. For over a month, Obama and House Speaker John Boehner have tried to negotiate the terms of a significant debt-reduction package -- not quite as sweeping as the $4 trillion offer the president pushed, and Republicans rejected, in 2011, but a $2.4 trillion effort, which is still enormous.

As of Friday, it sounded like Obama had all but given up on those ambitions, and is now eyeing a much smaller agreement.

To be sure, I suspect the president would still prefer a larger deal, such as the one Boehner abandoned a week ago, but last week helped reinforce a couple of important realizations. The first is that Boehner is a weak leader of a radicalized, directionless caucus. The second is that Republicans are so loath to compromise, a meaningful, bipartisan agreement with concessions from both sides is clearly impossible.

And with that in mind, Friday's comments pointed to what might be called Plan C -- lower rates on income up to $250,000, extended jobless aid, a cancellation of the sequester (or more likely, a postponement), and some kind of blueprint for additional action sometime in 2013.

The Grand Bargain is out; the Lesser Bargain is in.

The president will return to Washington tonight, and talks are expected to resume tomorrow.