Which Cans To Kick?

Matt Yglesias has a good item about the possibility of pushing back the fiscal cliff deadline. Good topic, and I’m surprised there hasn’t been more talk about it. Congress certainly could extend deadlines on everything for two weeks, four weeks, whatever, to allow time for negotiations to get done.

Of course, there’s no reason that all the deadlines would have to be pushed back. Looking at the two big pieces of it:

The issue with taxes is that not only do liberals believe that the expiration of Bush-era tax rates gives them a bargaining advantage, but many Republicans may well prefer that outcome as well. I think if there was any information generated by the Plan B fiasco, it might have been just that: some Republicans really would prefer an eventual outcome that involves relatively higher tax rates as long as they don’t have to make an affirmative vote for it. If that’s true, then we have to go over the cliff to make a deal; expiration of the tax rates is basically a necessary condition for the votes that are going to be needed.

On the other hand, one would think that there may well be a coalition available to kick the spending can down the road. Most mainstream Democrats simply don’t want the spending cuts that the sequester would make, certainly on the domestic side; they may like the level of Pentagon cuts, but even there many Democrats don’t, and even more don’t want Pentagon cuts carried out this way. On the Republican side, pro-military Members of Congress might be willing to suspend the sequester while a deal is in the works. The resistance to kicking the spending can down the road should come from those who really do want to slash government spending; they might fear, with good reason, that Democrats would lose the incentive to bargain if they believed they could just make the sequester go away. Still, hawks might argue that a one-time, short-term delay would be worth it because it would avoid disruptions in military procurement, and that Republicans could always pull the plug if Democrats responded by stalling and requesting more delays.

I’m not going to go into more of it, but don’t forget that Bush-era tax cuts and the spending sequester are only two of the pieces of the “fiscal cliff.” Yet another issue in any can-kicking is negotiating whether other things would be part of it, and the more complicated kicking-the-can negotiations get, the more it probably seems to everyone involved that they might as well just stick to the main negotiations.

At any rate: if there’s to be any delay, it could come together very, very, quickly, as long as everyone agrees — or it could take a week or more to pass, if a handful of Senators decide to grind things to a halt. I think the logic is there for a sequestration pause, but it’s a pretty close call, depending mainly on the balance within the GOP between Pentagon hawks versus spending cut true believers. But don’t expect anything on taxes; that part of the cliff is only going to be avoided if Republicans just decide to surrender in the next few days, and that seems very unlikely.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.