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.

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 Corker (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 Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Speaker John Boehner (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 Boehner 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.