Where Are You Going?

As the temper tantrums and recriminations fly back and forth in Washington on the fiscal cliff I have to say that I am, despite my low expectations, still amazed at what is nothing short of group dysfunction in American government. Just how low have we managed to sink? Let us count the ways.

This morning the Senate will come back into session after a Sunday where the Republicans managed to further shoot themselves in the (foot) (feet) (lower extremities), and have found themselves in an untenable spot politically. As negotiations appeared to be moving along Republicans came forward with a demand that Social Security cost of living increases should be modified (chained CPI) in a way that would reduce benefits. At the same time they were fighting against higher tax rates for the top 2% of earners, putting themselves in the great position of fighting to reduce Social Security for seniors to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy. At some point in the day John McCain and other GOP Senators came to this realization when they apparently gave the matter some thought. McCain tweeted that “Chained CPI” was off the table for the GOP. His comments, as reported in the Huffington Post:

“CPI has to be off the table because it’s not a winning argument to say benefits for seniors versus tax breaks for rich people,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “We need to take CPI off the table — that’s not part of the negotiations — because we can’t win an argument that has Social Security for seniors versus taxes for the rich.”

McCain and the GOP have come very slowly to the realization that they are now in a trap that they cannot escape from, a trap that they insisted (forcefully) on entering, and that walking away (again) from a larger deal with the President means that they in essence get very little that they want from the much smaller deal. (Such as Chained CPI). David Brooks, on Meet the Press, laid most of the blame on Republicans, saying:

Now I think most of the blame still has to go to the Republicans. They’ve had a brain freeze since the election. They have no strategy. They don’t know what they want. And they haven’t decided what they want.

Brooks offered some criticism of the President as well, but his criticism of the Republicans, in my opinion, is the important one. I believe he is right on the Republicans not knowing what they want, and I am just not sure how you negotiate with folks who don’t know what they want.

The dysfunction, and just plain stupidity, comes from the fact that all tax rates go up in two days. On that basis alone Republicans ought to be negotiating a deal that gets them all that they can from the weak position they now find themselves in. Despite the political hole they are in Republicans just keep digging.

If the talks do not produce an agreement today Majority Leader Harry Reid will introduce a bill on the Senate floor that is reflective of the President’s last offer, and the Senate GOP will be in a pickle. If they allow a straight majority vote (no filibuster) the bill will pass and go to the House, which will present the Speaker with a political problem. He has indicated that he would allow a vote, but I would anticipate that Republicans will amend it, and pass it right back to the Senate. That will likely bring the process to a close. Or the Senate GOP can reach a deal, and put the Speaker right back into that problem area. Can a GOP Senate sanctioned deal pass the House? That may end up as the question of the day!

For the odds-makers out there my last “line” was “off the cliff” as a 3 to 1 betting favorite. Today I make “off the cliff” a 2 to 1 betting favorite. At least the cliff part will be over as of midnight tonight, when we can immediately start writing about the debt ceiling. Happy New Year to all of you.

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