It began so optimistically. On November 16, after their first “fiscal cliff” session with US President Barack Obama, the four leaders of Congress had stood in the driveway of the White House shoulder-to-shoulder for what is a rare photo these days, Republicans and Democrats together, smiling.
There they were at the microphone, talking about a “framework” for tax reform and deficit reduction.
From that day on the driveway, things went downhill, rather quickly.
There was a feeling on both sides that the other was not acting seriously to avert the “fiscal cliff” of tax hikes and spending cuts that were set to occur at the beginning of this month. That was inflamed by public comments from ranking Republicans and Democrats, poisoning the atmosphere.
Many lawmakers and their aides fear that things may get more toxic through a series of bitter struggles expected in the next few months over the nation’s debt and deficit burdens — fights not just between the parties but within them, and between the White House, the Senate and the House.
At stake is not only the US government’s ability to get its finances under control but whether it might default on its debts, and suffer further downgrades in the nation’s credit rating.
While Obama is perceived the victor in the fiscal deal passed by Congress earlier this week, he did not come close to getting the one thing he demanded that could have headed off the next potential crisis: Freedom from a fight over the federal government’s debt ceiling, which is likely to occur in February when the Treasury Department must ask Congress to increase the government’s borrowing limit beyond the current $16.4 trillion.
Any positive vibes started fading a few days after the photo. On November 20, at a meeting between Republican staffers and Rob Nabors, the White House director of legislative affairs. Nabors announced that he had a White House offer in hand but “didn’t want to be laughed out of the room and implied he would skip it because it was a waste of time,” according to one Republican source. The White House declined to comment.
What the White House was offering was Obama’s budget proposal from earlier in the year, long ago rejected by Republicans.
A Democratic source familiar with the negotiations said it was merely an opening bid that should have come as no surprise, but Republicans saw it as a red flag, particularly after Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner touted