Putting foot down on fiscal cliff will only hit gas pedal

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TACOMA — You know the narrative:

Negotiations over the storied “fiscal cliff” are made more difficult because one side is feeling pressure from partisans on its extremes.

No compromises, they shout. Any movement toward the so-called Grand Bargain that would combine spending cuts and revenue increases is a vice, not a virtue.

Politicians who even consider such a deal should be vilified and targeted for intraparty primary challenges next election.

Congressional Republicans and the tea partiers, right? Well, yeah. Petitions and phone calls are urging Republicans to reject any resolution that involves higher taxes — either tax rates or higher tax revenues. They want a cuts-only solution to the deficit.

But a mirror-image story line has developed on the left. A coalition of national liberal advocacy groups have mobilized to pressure Democrats in Congress to accept no cuts to the primary federal social programs — Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. In fact, there does not appear to be acceptable spending reductions among this coalition. Instead, the deficit should be resolved with higher taxes on “millionaires and billionaires.”

They have divided Democrats into three groups — the weak-kneed, the wavering and the champions. Both of Washington’s U.S. senators — Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell — are in the middle group of those who could support a compromise and who will be pressured the most.

In this state, a coalition called Working Washington has proclaimed it will accept “No Cuts, No Compromises.”

Certainly the groups on the political edges know that not compromising raises the chances for tax increases on nearly everyone and deep cuts to both social programs and defense. While there are ways to push the issue off into the next year, the point of creating the so-called fiscal cliff was to force both sides to reject their extremes and reach a cuts-and-taxes compromise.

I once assumed the poison pill of automatic tax hikes and automatic spending cuts worth $600 billion was meant to force a do-nothing Congress to do something. Now, so-called sequestration and the end of Bush-era tax cuts might be more effective at forcing those on the far right and the far left to accept a compromise.

I also once assumed the failure to solve fundamental budget problems — spending money they don’t have and lowering taxes so as to make the problem worse — was due to the politicians being in the thrall of their funders. Now I realize it may be exactly what Americans want.

An avalanche of new polls confirm it. Asked generically about balanced budgets and compromise, a big majority are all for it. Asked about specific cuts and specific tax increases that might affect them, a majority say no way.

The only solutions that get majority support are for higher taxes on the rich and for cuts that affect only high earners. That polling strengthens the no-compromisers on the left. First, because that is the solution they have been pushing — no cuts and tax hikes only on the wealthy. Second, because the same polling suggests the blame for failure — for diving off the cliff — will fall primarily on Republicans.

The Pew Research Center asked 1,503 adults about the issue and found that by a 53 percent to 33 percent margin, the public sees the Republicans as “more extreme in their positions.” By a similar 53 percent to 27 percent, the public sees Democrats as “more willing to work with the leaders of the other party.”

Maybe all this is posturing. Maybe the groups at the far left and far right are simply causing a diversion so the leaders can negotiate. Maybe the tough talk by President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner is to make it look as if they are fighting hard for their side so as to give themselves cover for an eventual Grand Bargain.

Or maybe, as has always happened in the past — which explains why we’re in this mess — the side that senses a political advantage will hold out for its position in hopes of casting blame and winning bigger next election.

And we’ll all go off the cliff together.

Peter Callaghan can be reached at peter.callaghan@ thenewstribune.com

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