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Time To Address 'Fiscal Cliff' Narrows


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

It is Christmas Eve, a time for good will towards all, for peace on Earth, for setting aside differences. Well, maybe that's not true for everyone this year. On Friday, Congress went home without settling their differences over how to avoid the spending decreases and tax increases known as the fiscal cliff.

And here to talk with us about this apparent lack of holiday spirit, and about what's possible before the end of the year, is political commentator Cokie Roberts. Good morning, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, David. Happy holiday spirit to you.

GREENE: Well, to you as well. We can have holiday spirit.


GREENE: So you have probably been in the chambers on Capitol Hill on many a Christmas Eve, when they've actually reached some last-minute deals. But the problem here seems to be they're not there.

ROBERTS: They're not there. And I have been there, furious on Christmas Eve, I must say...


GREENE: I can imagine.

ROBERTS: ...and watched these nonagenarians, it always was - you know, people like Claude Pepper and John Stennis, staying up all night to get something like a highway bill done or a spending bill done. But they got it done. It was unthinkable that you would have something this important, as these big spending cuts and tax increases, looming over the Congress and them not getting it done. But it seems possible this year.

GREENE: Well, why is it possible? I mean a lot of what we saw last week had to do with House Speaker John Boehner and his plan kind of falling apart. I mean is this what is taking us to a moment when the reality is we might just not get a deal?

ROBERTS: Yes, and it seems that part of the problem is is that Speaker Boehner feels bound by what's called the Hastert Rule.


ROBERTS: When Dennis Hastert became the somewhat accidental Republican speaker of the House, after an implosion in the Republican Party, he put in a rule that he wasn't going to do anything without a majority of the majority. So he had to have most of the Republicans on board for anything. But that's almost impossible in the current climate with the polarization the way it is.

The only way for something really to get done is to take the middle of both parties. Now, there's very slim middles these days...

GREENE: Right.

ROBERTS: ...but let the extremes on both sides grouse. Look, the Democrats don't like any of these recent proposals either. But they haven't been put on the spot because the Republican disagreements have been so public. So Boehner just has to give up on this majority of the majority and form a coalition of minorities on both sides. And maybe the fact that his Plan B failed last week, it will show his caucus that that's the only way to go.

But I remember, David, back in 1982, when we had a similar problem with the deficit, and Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan came together and hammered out a deal. And it passed the House with 226 votes - 123 Democrats and 103 Republicans - the middles of both parties.

And Speaker O'Neill, a closed debate, saying the president and I do not belong to the same political party, we don't share the same philosophy; we're together because we know that if the economy of this nation is not strong and vigorous, its citizens are going to suffer. That's where the two have to come down again.

GREENE: Well, do you see the likelihood that we'll see a replay of that - that John Boehner and Barack Obama will be standing there saying similar things?

ROBERTS: Well, you know, if the Republicans in the House are smart, they will take a deal like that. Look, for the conservative Republicans, it's a godsend. They get to vote against raising taxes and they still don't get blamed for going over the fiscal cliff. And all the polls at the moment are showing that's where the blame will lie. So they should let their more moderate colleagues get together with the Democrats and put together that kind of package, because it will work for them politically.

GREENE: And where would you put the odds?

Are some people in Washington going to be toasting champagne, having a deal, or just that it's the new year?

ROBERTS: Well, as I say, in the old days I would say absolutely, yes. Now I'm just not at all so sure. Yesterday, on the Sunday talk shows, senators were pessimistic, but business groups are reportedly getting antsy. So maybe we'll get a little deal to avoid the economic consequences of going off the cliff, not a big deal. But you know, these days maybe not.

And don't forget, now we also have gun control added to the debate and fights over national security appointees. So it's going to be a rough New Year's here in Washington.

GREENE: Well, Cokie, have a great holiday.

ROBERTS: You too, David.

GREENE: Cokie Roberts joins us here most Mondays on Morning Edition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Cokie Roberts was one of the 'Founding Mothers' of NPR who helped make that network one of the premier sources of news and information in this country. She served as a congressional correspondent at NPR for more than 10 years and later appeared as a commentator on Morning Edition. In addition to her work for NPR, Roberts was a political commentator for ABC News, providing analysis for all network news programming.