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Scenes from the Opening Fiscal Slope Salvos in Washington

So here’s what we got out of MoveOn’s Justin Ruben, who participated in that meeting between President Obama and some labor and progressive groups today.

MoveOn’s 7 million members will be pleased to know that President Obama today strongly reiterated his steadfast commitment to ensuring that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent finally end December 31—and to protecting the middle class in the process. MoveOn is staying fully mobilized after last week’s election. Our millions of members are fired up and ready to go, and are taking the fight to Republicans who are holding middle class taxpayers hostage to win another tax cut for the rich. We also appreciate that the President again promised not to balance the budget on the backs of the middle class and the poor—and our members are committed to defending Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security from any benefit cuts as part of a budget deal.

So this could be read as further unclouding the debate on tax rates, and it certainly sounds like these groups will remain engaged and against social insurance benefit cuts. But their leverage on these matters has been limited by the lack of an upcoming election, where the President needs their help.

Let’s move to the other side of the capital, where Harry Reid kicked off the lame duck session with this exhortation on the fiscal slope:

It is within our power to forge an agreement that will give economic certainty now to middle-class families who can least afford a tax hike.

It is within our power to forge an agreement that will ask the richest of the rich – the most fortunate among us – to pay a little extra to reduce the deficit and secure our economic future.

It is within our power to forge an agreement that will protect important tax deductions for families and businesses still struggling.

It is within our power to forge an agreement that will take a balanced approach to reduce spending.

In fact, we could avert the fiscal cliff for 98 percent of American families and 97 percent of small businesses today. The House must only consider the Senate-passed bill freezing tax rates for those making less than $250,000 a year.

This Congress is but one vote away from avoiding the fiscal cliff for middle class families and small businesses.

So Reid gives a little clarity on taxes. Basically, his chamber passed their bill, and they’re done as far as averting a tax increase is concerned. The ball’s in the House’s court. There’s some more weasel talk in there about spending cuts and asking the rich “to pay a little extra.” But on policy grounds, Reid is essentially saying that the Senate-passed bill is as far as they’ll go.

Mitch McConnell, for his part, was anything but conciliatory in his opening remarks, basically taking tax increases off the table. Addressing the President, he said:

Saying that you want a balanced approach is not a plan. Saying people need to pay their fair share isn’t a plan. The tedious repetition of poll-tested talking points is simply that. And the longer the President uses them as a substitute for leadership, the more difficult it will be to solve our many problems. The time for the President to lead is now and that means offering a concrete plan that takes into account the fact that half the Congress opposes any taxes.

McConnell clearly intends to use his obstruction tools, barring the unlikely event of a complete elimination of the filibuster. Gridlock is alive and well in Washington, but gridlock brings unwelcome policies for Republicans into law. And because the public isn’t convinced that the two sides can work together, particularly on the fiscal slope, this gambit from Republicans of blaming Democrats for a tax increase just won’t work, in all likelihood.

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David Dayen

David Dayen