Clock is ticking on 'fiscal cliff'

The negotiations over whether or not to plunge the U.S. economy into quicksand is getting disturbing. Both sides told me this week the other party would take us off the cliff. Translation: both parties are willing to let the other one do it because blame is bigger than a breakthrough that would cause political pain. The offer from the Obama administration outlined to Republicans in Congress yesterday was a mistake — forget the substance — because it said not only are they willing to waste more time, but that infuriating House conservatives and creeping closer to the cliff is just fine with the president.

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Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) wants a deal. He doesn't get one if the Democrats make his Republicans run in the other direction. As I noted in my column this week, yes, Obama won reelection, but he has no mandate to just tax the wealthy while blowing off the remainder of our ever worsening fiscal crisis.

Thursday was a surreal day as the president ate lunch with former rival Mitt Romney, talking about the world, posing for the handshake picture, but not offering him an assignment. At the same time, the administration had sent outgoing Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, hardly a budget negotiator, to Capitol Hill to deliver the non-starter that made Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) burst into laughter. Across town, Vice President Biden was cruising the aisles at a CostCo in Washington, D.C., where he took part in the grand opening and ribbon cutting as if he was a member of the city council. Since Biden actually has relationships with leaders in Congress, unlike the president, it sure would help to have him leading the talks with Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who actually happens to be friends with Biden.

No, there seems to be plenty of time for outrageous posturing, as businesses and taxpayers panic. Somehow we can expect movement two weeks from now, the week of Dec. 17, and who  knows how close to Dec. 31 the bargaining will go. But the process so far is unseemly, and points to the likelihood that no grand bargain is in the offing, just a patch to avert the cliff before yet another trip to government at the brink. Democrats want a debt-ceiling increase with little in return, Republicans won't increase taxes and increase the debt ceiling without aggressive entitlement reform. Period.

It's the cliff now, next we will be near default again. Governing seems to be a thing of the past.


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