In the ongoing fiscal cliff chess match playing out on Capitol Hill, Democrats have a message for Republicans: checkmate.
Democrats look at the political landscape and see a win whether a deal gets cut now or after the country goes over the cliff. Worst-case scenario, they say, the House will approve legislation the Senate passed in July extending Bush-era tax cuts for everyone but the rich, an idea that Republican House Speaker John Boehner has flatly rejected.
If Boehner refuses to pass the Senate bill before the end of the year, Democrats say their hand only gets stronger in the new year when the Senate will have 55 Democrats and at least five Republicans who have signaled they could vote to extend the middle-class tax cuts.
“We have the political high ground -- there is no question about it. The sooner they realize it, the better it will be for them,” Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer said of the Republicans. “In 2010 it was the opposite. They had the political high ground and we had to do just about all cuts and no revenues. Now, the election was fought on revenues; we won it on revenues; the public is with us on revenues.”
Indeed, polls show that a majority of Americans favor raising taxes on the wealthy and will blame the GOP if the country goes over the cliff. And Democrats don’t believe that Republicans have the time, the megaphone or the leverage to force Democrats into making significant entitlement cuts right now. Congress just spent the last year making more than $1 trillion in cuts and Democrats say they are well-insulated from charges that they’re unwilling to slash spending.
“If we go over the cliff, it doesn’t last long. That’s why these guys are fundamentally checkmated,” said a senior Democratic leadership aide.
But if Democrats are to be believed when they say that they don’t want the country to go over the cliff, then President Obama and his Democratic allies may be overplaying their hand -- their hardline on raising taxes and minimizing spending cuts could contribute to a cliff dive.
Still, Democrats are convinced that the public support is so solidly behind them that there’s little risk to this particular game of chicken.
Democrats argue that the Senate bill would pass the House if Boehner brought it to the floor, evidenced by the fact that he hasn’t allowed a vote on it. (Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said the speaker hasn’t brought up the bill because the House has already passed legislation to extend all the tax rates.)
What Boehner probably doesn’t have, Democrats reason, is a majority of his caucus behind the bill, which is essential to preserving his speakership -- a dynamic, the Democratic aide said, that is “not our f---ing problem.”
“We should pass the Senate bill. That’s the step that needs to be taken. The speaker needs to say to his caucus, ‘Look the election is over and we need to pass the Senate bill,” said Rep. Sandy Levin, the top ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. “We’re not overplaying our hand. The public spoke.”
Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson said that while Democrats don’t want to go over the cliff, “Some Dems are saying, you can see it in their eyes, they’re saying, ‘Well, Republicans think they’re going to play chicken? They’re playing with the wrong people.”
For their part, Republicans rejected as fantasy the idea that Democrats have them boxed in, arguing that going over the cliff will mean billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts to defense and other programs as well as another fight over whether to raise the country’s debt limit.
“We’re not in a box. The question is, ‘Are Democrats going to drive us over a cliff for politics?’ If the answer is yes, then we’ll just have to see what happens,” said Republican Rep. Aaron Schock, who sits on the Ways and Means Committee.
Some Republicans believe that Obama’s drive to raise rates is a political calculation to divide Republicans and pave the way for a Democratic takeover of the House in two years.
“No doubt he’s still campaigning to have his last two years be like his first two years and get everything he wants,” said Republican Rep. James Lankford, adding that Republicans are frustrated because raising taxes won’t solve the nation’s deficit problems.
“That’s the big issue. It’s as if the president wants a messaging piece – ‘Look, I raised taxes. I poked the wealthy people in the eye,’” he said. “And we look at that and say, ‘What did that just accomplish other than you got a good talking point for your base?’”
Another Republican lawmaker was more blunt.
“We’re going over the cliff because he believes it’s to his benefit,” the lawmaker said. “Obama better hope he’s right.”