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For the Fiscal Cliff Talks, It's Back to the Future Again

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Earlier this year, Murray said she would be willing to move the fiscal cliff debate into 2013. But pushing the decisions off could have dire consequences, Stuart Rothenberg writes.

Anyone who hoped that Democrats and Republicans could find a quick way to avoid the upcoming fiscal cliff should by now know that we are heading for another of those buzzer-beater endings — if Congress and the White House beat the buzzer at all.

While President Barack Obama and Speaker John A. Boehner said the right things on election night and during the days that followed about compromise and avoiding the fallout that could come with failing to deal with the expiring Bush tax cuts, the nation’s current political realities make a quick deal impossible.

Not that this should come as a surprise to anyone.

What we are witnessing now is very similar to what we saw during the summer of 2011, when Democrats and Republicans waited until the last minute — indeed only hours before an August “deadline” — to raise the debt ceiling.

As I noted in a column two and a half months before that debt ceiling deadline, both parties had a strong incentive to wait until the very last minute before agreeing on a compromise. The situation is no different now, even after the 2012 elections.

Arriving at a compromise “too early” gives ideologues within each party an opportunity to complain that their side “caved” prematurely and could have gotten more if their political leaders had simply acted tougher, demanded more and waited.

That is what happened to the White House during the 2010 lame-duck session, when Obama agreed to the extension of all of the Bush tax cuts. Liberal critics pounded him after the fact for compromising too quickly and giving Republicans a victory. (Of course, the president got plenty of other goodies during that lame-duck session, which was widely hailed as a successful one for him and his party.)

This time, liberals started pushing the president and Democratic congressional leaders hard immediately after the elections to dig in and force Republicans to give ground on tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 per year.

While conservatives were rattled by November’s results, and more and more Republicans seem willing to compromise on the issue of revenue and taxes, Boehner knows that he still must prove to his conservative members (who, like the president, were just returned to Congress by their constituents) that he is getting the very best deal possible from the White House and the Senate.

The tendency to wait until the last minute before arriving at a deal is complicated this time by a chorus on the Democratic left singing a tune that conservative Republicans have been singing for the past couple of years: A deadline really isn’t a deadline at all.

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