By Russell Berman - 12/17/12 10:00 AM EST
The historically unpopular 112th Congress has one final chance at redemption: two weeks to strike the deficit deal that has eluded it for nearly two years.
For the current crop of congressmen, the long-running battle over taxes and spending will culminate in the kind of year-end showdown that voters have come both to expect and fear from Washington.
Then there are the dozens of House Republican freshmen who charged into town in 2011 on a crusade to cut spending but now face the possibility that the final vote they take this year will be one to raise taxes.
In interviews, lawmakers have said they see a major budget deal as necessary not only to control the nation’s soaring debt but also to show voters, financial markets and the world that Congress can function.
“Our mandate is to do something,” said outgoing Rep. Mark Critz (D-Pa.). “We have to show the American people that we can work together and get something done.”
With Christmas just over a week away, the prospects for an 11th-hour agreement to cut long-term deficits and avert the short-term “fiscal cliff” remain uncertain.
Boehner met with President Obama in the Oval Office for 50 minutes on Thursday evening and subsequently offered to raise tax rates on income above $1 million in exchange for significant entitlement reforms, according to news reports.
Obama rejected the offer, but it represents a major concession by the Speaker, who had previously offered $800 billion in new tax revenues but resisted any increase in rates.
The stalemate has contributed to congressional approval ratings that have hovered near historic lows since 2011, dipping to a nadir of 10 percent earlier this year, according to Gallup.
The public’s disdain for Congress soared following the debt-ceiling drama in the summer of 2011, when bickering over deficit reduction brought the country to the brink of default.
But it isn’t only inaction on the deficit that has tanked public approval. The Democratic-led Senate hasn’t passed a budget resolution in years, and partisan squabbling has held up the kind of measures that previously have passed without drama, such as disaster aid in the wake of Hurricane Irene in 2011.
The approval rating only climbed back above 20 percent shortly before the election — at a time when lawmakers had left the Capitol to campaign for much of the previous three months.
For Republicans who came to Washington after the 2010 midterms vowing to fight Obama to the end on taxes, there is deep frustration.
“We thought we’d get more done,” Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) said. “We thought we’d have a president that was more agreeable, especially given the debt situation that we face.”
While Boehner has accused Obama of “slow-walking” negotiations by avoiding specific spending cuts, Democrats say it is the Speaker’s weak standing in his conference that is preventing him from compromising on the central issue of tax rates.
Republicans dispute that charge. They argue that, aside from a few loud voices of dissent among conservatives, Boehner has strengthened his hand internally since 2011. At the time, reports of division within the House GOP leadership undermined his efforts to strike a grand bargain with Obama.
“They have faith in John as a negotiator,” veteran Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said of the Republican rank and file. “When a deal comes back, they’ll accept it was the best he could get.”
King said there were “some growing pains” for the conference but that members are more willing to accept an agreement that raises new tax revenue than they were a year ago.
When Boehner submitted a $2.2 trillion offer to the White House that included $800 billion in new tax revenue, he secured the signatures of the entire top GOP leadership team and three senior committee chairmen, including Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the 2012 vice presidential nominee.
The Speaker also flexed his muscle by booting from key committees four members who routinely voted and spoke out against the leadership. Yet in the absence of a path forward, opinions vary widely about how to reach a compromise, even among members who say they could accept higher taxes as part of a deal.
A proposal floated last month by Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) — for the House to agree to a Senate-passed bill extending current income tax rates for families earning less than $250,000 — has not gained traction in the lower chamber, even among more centrist members.
“It’s not viable,” a House GOP leadership aide said. An increasing number of House Republicans say they could accept higher tax rates on the wealthy, but only in exchange for significant spending cuts and entitlement reforms.
“If the president thinks that raising marginal tax rates on people making more than $250,000 – if that’s all he wants, and he’s willing to accept significant reform in entitlement, give it to him. Give it to him!” said Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.), who lost his reelection bid in November.
But Bass said he would not vote for the Senate bill, even if the only other option was going over the fiscal cliff.
“No, I would not,” he said. “I want savings, and I’m not going to vote to raise taxes to pay for increased spending.”
Among other members, positions were hardening last week as Congress left town with no agreement in sight.
Republicans rebutted polls showing support for Obama’s position and indicating that the public would blame Congress if the year ended without an agreement.
Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), a top Republican tax-writer and Boehner ally, said history would judge Obama more harshly. “If this deal doesn’t happen and the economy goes south again, I think history will look at it poorly on the president,” he said. “If you go back in history books, you don’t look at: Well, this Congress was bad.”
Voters seem to think otherwise. A Pew Research poll last week found just 32 percent of people felt Republican leaders were making a serious effort to reach a deficit agreement, compared to 55 percent who said Obama was committed to striking a deal.
The approval rating for Republican leaders stands at 25 percent, barely above the 22 percent approval following the debt ceiling crisis in the summer of 2011.
By contrast, Obama’s approval rating has rebounded from its debt-ceiling low of 43 percent to 55 percent, Pew found.
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the dean of the House and a veteran of 29 Congresses, suggested the public’s perception of the 112th Congress is already set — and even a fiscal cliff deal won’t change the view that it was ineffective and obstructionist.
“They’re pretty far down the slippery slope. I don’t know whether they can get back up,” Dingell told The Hill. “They’ve thrown away every chance they’ve had to achieve even a small measure of greatness.”
Bernie Becker contributed