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Maybe we should go over half of the “fiscal cliff”

I don’t think it’s possible to go over only half of a cliff, any more than one can kill half of a dog. But the “fiscal cliff” isn’t really a cliff; it’s a metaphor.

The metaphor refers to two very different phenomena. The first is a tax hike for everyone who pays federal incomes taxes. The second half is a rather large cut in federal spending.

I don’t know of any conservative who favors raising all tax rates. But many conservatives would not rule out a big spending cut, even if it extends to the Pentagon.

The two phenomenon — tax hikes and spending cuts — were lumped together to form the “fiscal cliff” in order to create a threat that all sides want to avoid. But if we go over the cliff, the tax hikes and the spending cuts will then live separate lives.

The life of the universal tax hike would almost surely be short. Senate Democrats would immediately pass legislation cutting taxes for everyone making less than $250,000 per year. House Republicans would initially resist that legislation and pass their own bill cutting taxes for everyone. But because the public will scream bloody murder at the Republicans (mainly), eventually Congress would likely pass something fairly close to the Democratic bill. But regardless of the final cut-off number — be it $250,000 a year, $400,000 a year or whatever — Congress in all likelihood will make sure the “middle class” gets retroactive tax relief.

The “cliff” spending cuts are another matter. The House, I imagine, will seek relief from the impact of the cuts in military spending. The Senate will try to tie that relief to relief on other spending cuts.

But Republicans can resist the Democrats on this. The public sides with the Dems on taxes and probably on entitlement reform. But when it comes to cutting government spending (as opposed to entitlements), Republicans will start with the upper hand, and may well retain it even if/when the Obama administration tries to manipulate the cuts to inflict pain.

Therefore, as I see it, we should expect one of two outcomes. If the Dems play hard ball the spending cuts will basically stick across the board. If the Dems relent in the name of national security, there will be significant relief on the military cuts but not much relief elsewhere.

The second outcome is what most conservatives want. The first outcome would be a mixed bag. But there is much to be said for putting the federal government on a diet, even if it means some discomfort for the military.

This would leave untouched the matter of entitlement reform, which is the key to solving our debt problem. If entitlements can’t be dealt with in a grand post-cliff bargain, they can be addressed in connection with debt-ceiling limit negotiations. These would occur either in February or, if Republicans think that’s to early given President Obama’s high current standing, later this year.

I’d still prefer a reasonable deal with the Democrats now to going over any portion of the fiscal cliff. But if Obama continues to take a hard line, Republicans should be willing to go over the better half of the cliff.

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