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The House Comes Around on the Cliff. Why Am I Not Reassured?

If you’re gaming out what’s likely to happen during the next fiscal showdown a few months from now, there are two ways to interpret the legacy of the cliff episode, which ended when the House approved the McConnell-Biden compromise last night. 

For Democrats, the optimistic take-away is that the two parties set up a mechanism for getting deals done, which is roughly as follows: First, the White House works out a compromise with Mitch McConnell, which passes the Senate with a bipartisan super-majority. This effectively isolates the House GOP and tells John Boehner the game is up. Boehner then lets his conservative members kvetch at length about McConnell’s treachery and the cosmic unfairness of it all. But eventually he brings up the compromise for a vote, and it passes with several dozen Republicans and a majority of Democrats. 

Suffice it to say, the process is messy and full of anxious last-minute lurches in either direction. But it ultimately gets the job done. We could do worse than running the same playbook when we’re on the clock again in March. 

As for the more pessimistic interpretation, it’s that the fiscal cliff presented Democrats with as much leverage as they're likely to come by in a generation or two. And even then, the GOP squeezed them for more some major concessions, including settling for a mere $600 billion in revenue after Obama and pretty much every GOP politico assumed $800 billion was the price of admission—what Obama was owed before the negotiation even started. Worse, even this preposterously good deal from the GOP’s perspective had trouble seeing the light of day in the Republican-controlled House. All of which makes you wonder what happens when Democrats lack leverage, which will be the case when the debt limit needs raising in several weeks. How does anything remotely acceptable to Democrats pass the House at that point? 

When I look ahead to the next few months through the eyes of the two most important actors—McConnell and the White House—it’s hard not to put myself in the pessimistic camp. 

Take McConnell first. The reason he played ball with Joe Biden this time is that he believed the political consequences of going over the cliff without a deal were worse for the GOP than striking a deal, and because he believed Obama wasn’t especially anxious about going over the cliff himself. Which is to say, McConnell calculated that he feared the consequences of not getting a deal more than Obama did. But if there’s one thing we learned in 2011, it’s that Obama fears the consequences of not raising the debt limit more than the GOP leadership, to say nothing of the GOP rank and file. McConnell will assume that if Obama coughed up concessions to cut a deal even when he wasn’t especially anxious about not getting one, he will cough up much bigger concessions when he’s panicked. 

And what has the White House learned? As I understand it, their read on the failure of Boehner’s Plan B two weeks ago was that the House GOP is a chaotic ungovernable force that can’t be relied upon to act in its own self-interest. This is, among other things, why the White House worried it could take weeks if not months to work out a deal if we’d gone over the cliff. I haven’t been in touch with anyone at the White House since the House GOP’s semi-revolt yesterday, so I can’t say whether it affirms the White House suspicion that these guys are irrational, or lessens it. (You could argue that the House GOP looks a bit more rational since Boehner got to the right outcome in the end.) But certainly nothing happened in the last few weeks that would make the White House especially confident the House won’t allow us to default absent a fiscal deal they like. To the contrary: Every GOP leader who urged a deal this time did it promising that the party would exact revenge during the debt limit fight. 

Now it’s true that the president forcefully reiterated his refusal to negotiate over the debt limit in his statement after the House vote last night. And if raising the debt limit were the only deadline looming in March, that might count for something, since it’s harder to squeeze a guy for concessions if he won’t even take your calls. But, as a practical matter, this is just a semantic game. The White House will be negotiating hard over the next two months even if it says it’s not negotiating over the debt limit, since the bill that funds the government for this year expires in March, as does the two-month delay in the automatic spending cuts that Congress just approved. What difference does it make why you say you’re negotiating if in the end you’re still negotiating?

Put all that together and here’s what the fiscal cliff accomplished then: It affirmed to Republicans that Obama will do pretty much anything he can to avoid a debt default, regardless of what he says. It affirmed the White House anxiety that the GOP might not blink before we default. To put it mildly, that's quite an asymmetry. I want to believe the president can get through the next stage in this endless budget stalemate without accepting some of the more dangerous spending cuts conservatives are demanding. But at this point I’m having a hard time seeing it.