Signs of a deal

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday said that it will be difficult to reach a bipartisan deal on taxes and spending by Christmas. Earlier in the day, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called for President Obama to “get serious” on reaching an agreement.

But despite the rhetoric, there are signs that the parties are getting closer.

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It is clear that there are only two principals in the talks: President Obama and Boehner. Last month, there was speculation that Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) might also be included.

But having more negotiators in the room slows down the process. Both Obama and Boehner know that, having nearly reached a “grand bargain” in the summer of 2011.

Boehner’s speech on Tuesday noted that his talks with the president have been “cordial.” And over the weekend, both the White House and Boehner’s office said the lines of communication between the two leaders are open.

Those kinds of public comments are tame compared to the salvos earlier this month.

So, if Obama and Boehner are making progress, why didn’t the Speaker say so on Tuesday?

The answer, plainly, is that had he said something along those lines, partisans on both sides would think Boehner and Obama must be giving concessions on big issues such as tax rates and Medicare.

That would focus questions on what those concessions were, instead of on the agreement as a whole. It is likely that Boehner and Obama will keep the details under wraps until they sign off on the whole thing. It is also noteworthy that neither side has leaked what happened in their most recent meetings.

There is little doubt that Obama will win this negotiation in the wake of his reelection victory, but he also knows that Boehner needs to be able to take a trophy back to his conference, and so the president is probably willing to deal.

At the White House Christmas party, Reuters reported that Obama pulled Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) aside and said, “I will go further on this thing than you guys think. I know we can get something done.”

Republican leaders have moved significantly since the election, offering Obama $800 billion in tax revenue. They will have to go further, most likely bowing on higher tax rates for the wealthy. The White House also will have to go further than its initial proposal, which was regarded, not just by the GOP, as unserious.

It was perhaps best seen as way of implicitly threatening Republicans that the president could choose to be brutal if they dug in their heels.

Will there be a deal before the end of the year? The chances of it certainly have increased this week.