It's possible to have a strong hand and still overplay it. As Republicans see things, that's what President Obama is doing in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations.
In private conversation, some in the GOP appear a little sheepish about the fact that they once took the president seriously. Even though he had the upper hand after winning re-election, they thought he genuinely wanted to avoid going over the cliff and would negotiate in good faith. Then Obama sent Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to Capitol Hill with a thumb-in-the-eye offer, and Republicans got the message.
In subsequent days, Obama has not only flatly rejected a Republican proposal that, unlike Obama's, made concessions on tax revenue. He has also ratcheted up his demands -- he now says there will be no fiscal cliff deal without a deal on the debt ceiling as well, which he has demanded unilateral authority to control. And he has, in public, addressed Republicans as if they were unruly children in need of discipline.
”If Congress in any way suggests that they're going to tie negotiations to debt ceiling votes ...” Obama told the Business Roundtable recently, “I will not play that game. Because we've got to break that habit before it starts.”
After Obama's displays of intransigence, many Republicans are looking for a way out of the situation that doesn't involve good-faith negotiations with the White House. It's not easy.
Of course, some in the GOP want to stand and fight. One senior House Republican told me he did not know how the situation could be resolved, but “what I do know is you can never go wrong standing up for principle and the truth.” Some of them would like to see House Republicans pass a bill extending all the Bush tax cuts and say to the White House: Here's our offer.
Others, however, are looking for a creative way out. Some are focusing on the automatic nature of the coming tax increases. On Jan. 1, if no one does anything, all the Bush tax cuts will expire. Taxes will go up without anyone's vote.
One idea circulating among at least a few Republicans would be for the House to pass one bill extending the Bush tax cuts for all but the highest bracket, and then another bill extending the Bush cuts for the highest bracket alone. Both would pass with Republican support, and both would go on to the Senate. There, majority Democrats would pass the bill for lower-bracket cuts with Republican support and would kill the bill for top-bracket cuts over Republican opposition. Voila -- the tax rate for high earners would go up without GOP votes.