Could a Deal on the “Fiscal Cliff” Be Worthy of Spielberg?

If Obama and Boehner want to make history, they’ll need a bold breakthrough—maybe even something cinematic.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), left, listens as U.S. President Obama speaks.
Speaker of the House John Boehner (left) listens as President Obama speaks during a meeting with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders at the White House in November in Washington

Pool photo by Olivier Douliery/Getty Images.

“This is not Spielberg’s Lincoln, OK? You’re not going to pick these guys off one at a time,” Republican Rep. Tom Cole said to me in a recent conversation about fiscal-cliff negotiations between President Obama and Republicans. “We have one negotiator. His name is John Boehner.” President Lincoln passed the 13th Amendment by siphoning off enough Democrats to win passage. Cole says Obama can’t do the same thing with today’s House Republicans. Any deal that passes the House will do so with the majority of Republican support. “If he comes back and tells us, ‘This is a deal, I think it’s the best deal I can get, it’s an acceptable deal for the American people,’—the support will be there.”

We may be close to that moment. In the last several days, the speaker and the president have been trading proposals at a faster and more serious rate. There could be a tentative deal announced this week. Cole got me to thinking: Would there be anything in such a deal to warrant treatment by Steven Spielberg? The agreement is shaping up to cover about $2 trillion in deficit cuts, which isn’t puny. The White House will claim the president has notched more than $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the last year. Relative to the recent paltry history of bipartisan dealmaking, this is notable, but that may say more about the shriveled times we live in. To make it worthy of Spielberg, it would probably require introducing some space aliens or dinosaurs.

Still, history is playing a part in this process. The specific wrangling is about the size of the tax increases, entitlement cuts, and the debt limit. How big a tax hike will Republicans have to accept? What level of entitlement cuts will the president ask Democrats to stomach? Will Republicans give up the leverage they gain through refusing to raise the debt limit without spending reductions? All of these details are still being worked out, but beyond getting the numbers right on paper, both men have historical reasons to get them to add up to a deal.

For the president, a deal will be quick, tangible proof of the power that he gained with his re-election. It doesn’t get much better for a Democratic president than bending Republicans to your position on taxes. In the last big negotiating fracas, the president told House Majority Leader Eric Cantor that he would take the fight over taxes to the American people. He did, and since Boehner has agreed to higher tax rates, it looks like the president is likely to win.

More broadly though, a deal will start President Obama’s second term on a good note. This round of fiscal-cliff fuss is the fifth stage of brinksmanship budgeting we’ve lived through since Obama took office. That hairball threatened to hang around into the second term. With a deal in hand, he will have a chance to focus on other issues.

If the financial markets like whatever deal is struck, there’s a chance the recovery will pick up, too. The president and his advisers believe that failure to get a deal will hurt business and consumer confidence, stifling an economy that is poised to recover. If the economy does start humming after a deal, that will be an important legacy item for Obama. The president (and his fellow Democrats) will be able to claim authorship of the recovery that pulled the country out of the greatest downturn since the Great Depression. 

John Boehner has a tougher route to history. In his office hangs a painting of Nicholas Longworth, the speaker of the House from 1925 to 1931 just before the New Deal. Longworth, who became known as a bipartisan dealmaker, was so admired they named one of the House office buildings after him. (Before Newt Gingrich, Longworth was the only Republican speaker to serve consecutive terms in the intervening 66 years.*)  Boehner hails from the same part of Ohio and aspires to be remembered as the working-class analog to the patrician Longworth. If there’s a deal with the president, it won’t get his name on a building, but it will elevate Boehner in the history books. At a time of intense sclerosis in Washington, he was able to work with a president many in his party despise to achieve something real.

Of course, Boehner has got to pass a deal first. That’s what Rep. Cole was talking about. The White House is worried that even if Boehner shakes hands with the president, he won’t be able to get Republicans to vote for the final deal. They just won’t tolerate the tax hike.

Indeed, when the House Republican conference meets in HC-5, that’s where Spielberg might want to station his cameras. Boehner will be trying to convince the members brought to power by anti-tax Tea Party activists to vote to raise taxes. The party whose aversion to taxes was so iron-clad that none of its presidential contenders this last cycle said they would vote for a budget deal that included $1 raised from tax revenue for every $10 raised through spending cuts. The ratio of tax revenue to spending revenue in this deal is likely to be 1-to-1. Voting for that will be dramatic and historical. It will be the first time Republicans have voted for a tax increase since 1991. 

There will be cries that Boehner has caved and sold out. George Bush’s budget agreement of 1991, which broke his pledge against raising taxes, is still considered a great sin of the modern Republican Party. Disgust for that capitulation has guided Republican thinking for the last 20 years. The benefit most members got from fighting against a tax hike outweighed the benefit Bush got from supporting a bipartisan deal. Ron Brownstein argues in the National Journal that this rigid anti-tax stance has contributed to Republicans losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.

Will John Boehner usher in a new era—a return to the bargaining and dealmaking of Bush and Longworth? Or will there be no deal at all, leading to a New Year where Washington politicians are stuck in the same grind and history is forced to wait? One thing is certain: Spielberg doesn’t do stalemates.

Correction, Dec. 18, 2012: This article originally stated that before Newt Gingrich, Longworth was the only speaker to serve consecutive terms in the intervening 66 years. In fact, he was the only Republican speaker to serve consecutive terms during that period. (Return to the corrected sentence.)