President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will crisscross the country during the next month offering different visions for how to fix the country’s fiscal mess.
But in Washington, the senators in the Gang of Six — plus two newbies — will have a secret retreat next week hosted by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) to start cobbling together a plan to avoid the looming fiscal cliff.
For this round of talks, the bipartisan group has added Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former member of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) leadership team, and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who has grown close to Obama as he tries to capture Colorado this election season.
Senate insiders confirmed the upcoming session, although the group will not disclose its location.
“This group continues to meet and work toward a bipartisan solution,” Warner spokesman Kevin Hall said.
Other Gang of Six members include Sens. **** Durbin (D-Ill.), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
The group came together in the summer of 2011 to try to hammer out a deal to solve the debt ceiling crisis but failed to reach an agreement in the end.
Yet it’s jumped into the latest debate over the fiscal cliff — the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and a dramatic cut to federal spending, including for the Pentagon — to see try to see if the bipartisan fever catches widely.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), McConnell and other top senators have encouraged the talks to continue — largely because they have nothing to lose. These bipartisan groups typically don’t have much real power — in fact, last time, they were blamed for scuttling a deal between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) after they proposed higher revenue targets than agreed to by the principals.
Even through their track record is poor, such gangs do have appeal in Washington: They’re bipartisan, and seeing political opposites lock arms in genuine negotiations looks refreshing to both the media and the American public. These secret meetings — like the one Warner is hosting — play to official Washington’s obsession with quiet negotiations between politically serious figures as the way to unravel the most pressing political problems.
But the dynamic, which is sure to distract many in town, ignores a fundamental truth: The House of Representatives is where the action will be after the election.
House Republicans have already passed a bill that extends all the Bush tax rates for a year and moved on legislation to blunt massive cuts to Pentagon and defense spending. If past is precedent, Boehner will hold that up as the party’s negotiating position until the rest of the players are ready to come to the table.
Plus, Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s Republican Conference has been hesitant to put enough revenue on the table to satisfy Democrats and refused to endorse any increase in taxes.
“The House has outlined a common-sense path forward by passing legislation that replaces the sequester and stops the looming tax hike for one year while Congress works to enact comprehensive tax and entitlement reform. Tax hikes are a nonstarter, as the speaker has made clear,” Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said in a statement to POLITICO.
With Reid, Obama and Senate Democrats strongly opposed to extending the Bush tax rates for anyone making more than $200,000 annually and families making over $250,000 annually, the lines are set for a huge political clash. Insiders on both sides of the aisle are bracing for a rocky lame-duck session no matter who wins on Election Day.
If polls stay steady, Boehner will be at the helm of a House filled with Republicans disappointed that Obama will have another four years in the White House.
If Romney wins, buckle up, because Republicans will face a whole new set of challenges. Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have tied themselves tightly to the House GOP budget. A Romney victory will only embolden Republicans to stick tight to those principles, which are nonstarters for almost every Democrat in Congress.
Romney and Ryan will also face the challenge of staffing a new administration while struggling with huge fiscal and budgetary challengers.
But the deadlines are clear and not moving.
Taxes are scheduled to go up at the end of the year if Congress takes no action, hitting an average middle-income family with a $2,000 jump, according to the Tax Policy Center. The rich will get hit with an even heftier tax bill.
Obama’s position is that top tax rates should snap back to near 40 percent, the same as they were under former President Bill Clinton. Boehner and McConnell want the Bush rates extended for everyone.
As the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Day — a mere 55 days after Election Day — automatic cuts to the Pentagon and domestic spending will kick in. Defense contractors could begin laying people off. According to Cantor, the U.S. military could even begin rethinking its global engagement strategy.
On top of these massive fights over taxes and spending, the U.S. debt ceiling will need to be lifted by February or March. Remember how that went last time? It was messy.
And there’s a lot of talk about tax reform on the campaign trail — a mechanism that would be used in place of tax increases to create more revenue. Both sides have struggled to define what that would look like.
The positioning wars are already beginning. The New York Times floated on its front page Tuesday a three-step plan to solve the fiscal cliff. That drew a stern rebuke from McConnell, who later issued a statement saying he’s not aligning himself with the Gang of Six or any other group at this time. McConnell hopes that by November he’ll be majority leader in waiting. Even if he’s not, McConnell will still control enough votes to block any Democratic proposal.
“As the leader made clear many times, there can be no solution without the president’s involvement and leadership. Sadly, the president has been notably absent from any serious conversation about reducing our national debt,” said Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman. “And while the leader has encouraged Republican members to seek solutions and is aware that many members are discussing potential solutions, these efforts are still in the early stages, and he has not endorsed any particular effort over another.”
And there’s one other factor to consider in resolving the fiscal challenges — both McConnell and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who might take over as majority whip in the next Congress, are up for reelection in 2014. With strong tea party groups active in their home states, McConnell and Cornyn cannot ignore calls for fiscal belt-tightening from their conservative constituents or they could end up facing primary challenges.
And Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, is also up next cycle. Depending on who wins this year’s Senate battle in Montana, Baucus may see a different political landscape back home come January.
I like the idea of people from both parties being locked in a room and trying to work things out. Everyone is so stubborn or afraid to compromise it seems. We really need more of this to get things done.
I wish we could reward the politicians that will step away from their party politics to get something done that is moving us in the right direction (although, I guess that is the problem . . . different visions of what is the right direction). But if they'd just meet in the middle a bit more . . . it might help.
I always have hope . . .
(is this like making my fighting boys sit on the couch holding hands?)
Oh boy... are we really going to go through this again? Anyone taking bets on these guys getting anything of any importance done?
I've run out of hope with/for politicians. My only thought is, what is this little sequestering going to cost the tax payer? If it costs anything, something positive better come of it or I will be writing letters to all parties involved asking them to resign.
The problem with this group is, a couple of the people involved are career politicians. In my opinion, that means you are bought and paid for and you will stand on a certain set of ideals. Your opposition sits across the table from you and idealistically, you've not seen eye to eye on anything, including lunch. Perhaps it's not a waste of time, but I don't know what else to call it.
Politicians have ruined their image as far as I'm concerned. They all say they are willing to make concessions, but they don't make concessions. Every concession has 5 concessions attached to it.
Look at all of the $hit that gets attached to any bill that gets run through the House. School bills have military spending issues on it.... military spending bills have social issues and health care spending on it.... This is what's wrong!!!! Education is education and nothing else should be attached to it. It is an issue all of its own and deserves all attention given directly to it. Same for health care, same for military spending, same for social issues.... but these dolts do all they can to muddy the waters and "sneak" something through, under the guise of being a "concession".
Screw politicians! They are not doing their job. The only thing they are good at is trying to deceive the public and spending money. That's it.
I do really wish there was a way to reward and recognize those that don't just fight their party line and try to work with the other meeting in the middle. That's what I want to see. Problem is---- to those that fall way left or way right, that is unacceptable. So it always ends the same way.
But, I'm eternally optimistic that in the end, it will work out (IE: before I die).
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