Is a fiscal cliff deal at hand?

Once “fiscal cliff” negotiations were in the hands of Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden (who replaced Harry Reid last night, apparently at McConnell’s request), the prospects of a deal improved considerably. Deals are what McConnell and Biden do.

The problem is that McConnell and Biden may not be in a position to make good on any deal. John Boehner, who has been in the wings for some time, and Harry Reid, who was sent there yesterday, will be far more instrumental in the passage of any deal. It is Boehner, not McConnell, who must sell a deal to House Republicans. And it is Reid, not Biden, who must sell it to Senate Democrats.

Which brings us to the latest report on negotiations. According to AP:

The contours of a deal to avert the ‘fiscal cliff’ emerged Monday, with Democrats and Republicans agreeing to raise tax rates on couples making over $450,000 a year, increase the estate tax rate and extend unemployment benefits for one year, officials familiar with the negotiations said.

But with a midnight deadline rapidly approaching, both sides were at an impasse over how to handle automatic, across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect on Jan. 1. Democrats want to put off the cuts for one year and offset the so-called sequester with unspecified revenue.

Left to their own devices, McConnell and Biden could easily compromise on delaying the across-the-board spending cuts — split the difference and delay them for half a year. And Reid could probably bring the Senate along.

But House Republicans will, I assume, balk at tax rate increases on those making $450,000 a year or more unless they receive something better in return than a delay in the sequester to be offset with “unspecified revenue.” After all, they wouldn’t agree to tax rate increases for “millionaires” only without concrete spending cuts.

We can expect Boehner to push for whatever deal McConnell signs off on. And he won’t need to bring his entire caucus, or even a majority of it, along in order to pass a Senate bill. But he would be ill-advised to push for a deal that a majority of his caucus doesn’t want, especially if they don’t want it because it kicks meaningful spending cuts too far down the road.

President Obama is scheduled to speak about the “cliff” in a few minutes. So stay tuned.

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