A cliff deal? Not soon

Many people in Washington, Wall Street and beyond are asking the same question: Will there be a deal to get the federal deficit under control?

Only one thing is clear: No agreement is imminent.

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Democratic and Republican insiders say serious negotiations won’t begin until they have to, which in congressional terms means several minutes after the eleventh hour has begun. The deadline for a bipartisan pact dealing with the expiring tax rates, spending cuts and sequestration is Jan. 1. Congress has a nasty habit of procrastinating, and there is no reason to believe this showdown will be any different.

Neither side has much interest in getting a deal to President Obama’s desk by early or mid-December. Such a bill would probably increase taxes and cut benefits — in other words, an unpopular piece of legislation.

Getting conservatives and liberals to vote for the measure will require intense whipping. But it will need more than that. Perhaps the most important ingredient for a deal will be fatigue. Members sitting on the fence might be more willing to vote yes after weeks of a grueling debate and a declining number of shopping days until Christmas.

The White House this week warned that uncertainty over taxes might undermine the holiday shopping spree. But if the past is any guide, talks between Congress and the White House will not really get serious for a couple weeks, perhaps even three.

Sen. Bob CorkerBob CorkerThe Hill's 12:30 Report Senate Foreign Relations chair: Erdogan referendum win 'not something to applaud' Groups warn of rural health 'crisis' under ObamaCare repeal MORE (R-Tenn.) on Monday said that ironing out a deal could take as little as two or three days, noting that lawmakers have been discussing tax and spending policies since 2011.

That is true in theory, but Capitol Hill leaders need more time to asses what their members will support and what they will oppose. One trial balloon after another is likely to float into the December sky over Washington and then get shot down.

Before Thanksgiving, Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidWeek ahead: House to revive Yucca Mountain fight Warren builds her brand with 2020 down the road 'Tuesday Group' turncoats must use recess to regroup on ObamaCare MORE (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellSenate votes to confirm Rosenstein as deputy attorney general Overnight Finance: Dems want ObamaCare subsidies for military spending boost | Schumer: Drop the wall and we'll make a deal | Trade battle: Woe, Canada? | Congress nears deal on help for miners MORE (R-Ky.), Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerLobbyists bounce back under Trump Business groups silent on Trump's Ex-Im nominee Chaffetz won't run for reelection MORE (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) huddled with Obama at the White House. The four congressional leaders called the meeting “constructive” and expressed optimism.

It was a rare glimpse of bipartisanship — bipartisan spin, that is.

The stock market responded favorably, even though there is little reason to think that the White House and Congress are anywhere close to a deal.

Arguably, it is tougher for an agreement to be reached now than it was in the summer of 2011, when BoehnerJohn BoehnerLobbyists bounce back under Trump Business groups silent on Trump's Ex-Im nominee Chaffetz won't run for reelection MORE and Obama nearly struck a “grand bargain.” Since then, Democrats have won an election and proclaimed Social Security untouchable. They are also insisting that raising the nation’s debt limit be included in any agreement reached this year. Meanwhile, Republicans are refusing to raise tax rates.

Will there be a deal? Maybe, but don’t hold your breath.