On Thursday, President Obama made his opening bid in the closely watched negotiations to keep the U.S. from slipping over the "fiscal cliff" — the nickname for steep tax hikes and spending cuts that are set to automatically take effect starting Jan. 1. Republicans weren't impressed. On behalf of Obama, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner proposed to Republican leaders $1.6 trillion in tax increases over 10 years, $50 billion in immediate infrastructure spending, an end to automatic congressional control over the debt ceiling, and $400 billion in Medicare savings. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tells The Weekly Standard that he "burst into laughter" in front of Geithner, while House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) complained that Obama didn't offer any details on spending and entitlement cuts, showing he's not serious. "Listen, this is not a game," Boehner said. "Jobs are on the line. The American economy is on the line."
This tells us two things about how negotiations are going, says Ezra Klein at The Washington Post. One, they are not going well — "when one side begins leaking the other side's proposals, that's typically a bad sign." The bigger point is that "Republicans are frustrated at the new Obama they're facing: The Obama who refuses to negotiate with himself." In his first term, Obama would propose a plan that "roughly tracked where he thought the compromise should end up," and Republicans would ask for more. This time, Obama's making the GOP set out their terms, so each side can claim some wins in the final deal. So, "the next question is obvious: What's their offer?"
Well, "if Republicans are going to agree to a deficit reduction bill containing a big tax increase, then obviously they're going to want large domestic spending cuts," says Matthew Yglesias at Slate. And the only way to do that without kneecapping the government is "meaningful reductions in entitlement spending." The Democrats' position is clear: Raise taxes on the rich. It's not clear Republicans even know what their bottom line is:
Paul Ryan's budget, for example, cut Medicare spending by exactly $0 over 10 years, promised small cuts in years 11-20, and then giant cuts in years 21-30. Obviously if Democrats proposed that timetable as their spending "concession" Republicans would laugh them out of the room. But that was their proposal! And Mitt Romney, by promising to roll back Obama's cuts in Medicare reimbursement rates, would have actually increased Medicare spending in the 10-year horizon.... On Medicare there's simply a lot of cognitive dissonance inside the Republican ranks. The low-tax party naturally wants to be against the fastest-rising element of federal spending, but it also doesn't want to reduce health-care providers' incomes or old people's living standards.
Here's an idea to see what Republicans want, says John Hinderaker at Power Line: Both parties can agree to a 120-day Band-Aid to forestall the pain of the fiscal cliff, the GOP-controlled House can pass its plan, the Democratic-controlled Senate can pass its version, "a conference committee can reconcile the House and Senate bills, and then all members of both houses can vote on the resulting compromise package." Voters would probably prefer such "a rational process, conducted in the light of day," over backroom deals, but Republicans should, too. The result of secret negotiations is invariably "a lousy deal for conservatives."