Feb. 11, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

What Would It Take for Action on Fiscal Cliff?

There are many reasons for this, not the least being that once specifics are put on the table, they will bring howls of outrage from many quarters. This, of course, is also why House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's budgets, long lauded by many in the commentariat for their commendable specificity, are not specific at all, and why GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's budget and tax plans are filled with yawning gaps.

I expect a Senate plan that pushes the fiscal cliff off for six months or so, makes a down payment on bending the budget cost curve via some specific cutbacks in domestic and defense discretionary spending, directs tax committees to come up with a tax reform that also raises a third or so of the $4 trillion in revenues, and lays out some elements of change in Medicare and Medicaid to raise another third or more, all with directives to relevant committees to fill in the details during that six-month period. That is far from ideal, but mediocre would be considerably better than nothing.

The major kicker comes in the House. Any deal that includes a significant tax increase - which means any deal that is actually workable, as every bipartisan commission and gang has shown - will meet with stiff resistance from the anti-tax pledge crowd, which encompasses the vast majority of Republicans in the House.

The House, unlike the Senate, does not have a deep reservoir of problem solvers aching to come out of their shells. They exist, but nearly all are intimidated by the threat of a primary challenge financed by the Club for Growth.

The House in the 113th Congress will likely be even more polarized than the 112th. The real challenge will be for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio): Will he agree to a plan that can pass the House only with more Democrats supporting it than Republicans? Will Boehner, in other words, fall on a grenade when both Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) are poised to reach in and pull the pin?

Let me add another kicker to throw into the mix.

In 2014, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is up for re-election.

Remember that two years ago McConnell threw everything into trying to deny Rand Paul the Republican nomination for the Senate in his state - and despite his firm control of the party apparatus, failed miserably. The conservative base in Kentucky is very strong, and that will be a factor in how willing the top Senate GOP leader is to take on a fiscal plan that includes significant tax increases.

At the same time, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), an innate problem solver, is the number one target in 2014 of the Club for Growth, and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R), one of the great heroes of the gang of six, is also up in Georgia, a state with its own conservative base.

Whatever happens in November, we remain far from a new politics of
problem-solving over an existing politics of tribalism.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Correction: Oct. 4, 2:30 p.m.

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