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Two steps forward, two steps back

When it comes to striking a bipartisan fiscal deal, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) argued yesterday that the only compromise he'll consider is one in which
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.)
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.)

When it comes to striking a bipartisan fiscal deal, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) argued yesterday that the only compromise he'll consider is one in which Republicans accept no concessions whatsoever. Around the same time, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said the same thing.

Given this, it's fair to say the prospects for a so-called "Grand Bargain" are finished, right? Almost, but not quite.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Sunday that he believes Republicans would consider adding new tax revenues by closing loopholes if Democrats show a willingness to embrace "true" entitlement reform."I think Republicans, if they saw true entitlement reform, would be glad to look at tax reform that generates additional revenues," Corker said on "Fox News Sunday." "And that doesn't mean increasing rates, that means closing loopholes. It also means arranging our tax system so that we have economic growth."

Corker is clearly part of a very small minority in his party, but it's worth noting he's not completely alone -- Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) made similar remarks shortly before the sequestration deadline about Republicans trading tax-reform revenue for unspecified entitlement "reforms."

It's admittedly difficult to read the available tea leaves -- for every report that says Republicans will simply never even consider a compromise, there's another that says the window is not yet closed and a deal is still possible.

But if we're keeping score, put me down in the "deeply skeptical" category. Putting aside the merits of a "Grand Bargain" -- I'm skeptical about the need for such a deal, too -- I just don't see a scenario in which enough congressional Republicans accept concessions to pass an agreement.

In fairness, the optimists have a compelling talking point: Republicans want changes to social-insurance programs like Medicare and Social Security; President Obama is tempting them by putting the "reforms" on the table; and GOP leaders know the only way Democrats would even consider these cuts is if Republicans make concessions on new revenue.

So why is failure probably inevitable anyway? In large part because when weighing the Republican support for entitlement cuts against the Republican opposition to new tax revenue, it's no contest -- today's GOP is not a small-government party; it's an anti-tax party. On the list of Republican priorities, there's a #1 issue, followed by a steep drop-off to every other consideration.

For proof, look no further than Boehner's and McCarthy's comments yesterday. Yes, Corker sounded a more constructive note, but I strongly suspect he's part of an intra-party minority that would be quickly crushed if a deal started to materialize.

But isn't Obama making them a generous offer intended to garner GOP support? Yes, but let's also not forget two things. First, the president has already put very conservative measures on the table, but they're far short of what Republicans generally consider acceptable (the elimination and privatization of entitlement programs). Second, as we've seen before, the m.o. for Republicans is to simply pocket Obama's offers while demanding more, constantly moving the goal posts to new extremes, before the president eventually gives up and the media blames "both sides."

Indeed, look again at Corker's specific use of words: he'll consider revenue if Democrats accept "true" reforms. Who gets to decide what's "true"? Apparently, Corker and his party do, and chances are, their definition won't line up well with the Democrats' definition.

I realize that on a conceptual level, this seems like the sort of agreement that could be reached in an afternoon. Both sides are looking for similar amounts of debt reduction, and have already made significant progress towards their goal. Democrats are open to spending cuts and entitlement changes, and if Republicans met them half-way on tax-reform revenue, they could shake hands and move on to some other issue.

But if I were a betting man, I'd say the smart money is on "never going to happen." All of the GOP leadership and most of their rank-and-file members not only refuse to consider a compromise, but consider the very idea of meeting the White House half-way to be ridiculous.