As American lawmakers coalesced around a last-minute bargain to stave off across-the-board tax hikes and spending cuts — the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ — on New Year’s Eve, congressional insiders were itching to celebrate victory.
But even if reports of agreement on a deal to raise tax rates on high earners to their Bill Clinton-era levels suggest some semblance of compromise, the underlying issue — cutting large chunks of the ballooned federal deficit — is likely to once again be kicked down the road, with lawmakers averting the fiscal cliff but also ducking its intent: to force a bargain on structural deficit issues.
Indeed, the immediate flurry of GOP criticism of President Obama’s midday press conference suggesting a deal was near — and going so far as to say his rhetorical flourishes might upset a delicate bargain — serves as a reminder that partisan gridlock in Congress has perhaps never been greater, with once-routine tasks like raising the federal debt limit and taking a bite at the national debt now relegated to the history books.
So while Democrats and President Obama can claim a limited victory if Congress does revert tax rates on the high-income earners to their 1990s-level of 39.6 percent — a blow to the Republican anti-tax orthodoxy more or less firmly in place since a revenue-raising budget deal was signed by an incumbent President George H.W. Bush in 1990 — the fact remains that the threat of intransigence provides the opposition in modern American politics with powerful political tools. As TIME’s Mark Halperin points out, congressional Republicans can be expected to flex their muscles in a big way once again when the next round of debt ceiling negotiations get down to the wire. Perversely, any deal on the fiscal cliff only makes that more likely.