You can tell that neither party has fully grappled with the outcome of the election yet by observing how closely Republicans and Democrats resemble dogs sniffing each others’ backsides.
In the 36 hours since President Obama won re-election, House Speaker John Boehner and top Democratic senators have each made conciliatory public statements, and alluded to the potential for compromise on looming tax and spending questions — without actually conceding any substantive demands.
The muted posturing stands in stark contrast to the immediate aftermath of the 2010 midterms when Democrats tucked tail and Republicans barked clear demands for Democratic concessions.
But beneath the gentle exterior, both parties are signaling that they know where the negotiating advantage lies, and Democrats in particular believe they’ll ultimately get their way whether or not Republicans begin to move in their direction.
“I was heartened, very heartened by the tone … that Speaker Boehner showed yesterday in his remarks,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) at a breakfast roundtable Thursday with reporters hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “He basically said that the President won the election and he should lead. He said that he was open to revenues, which many in his own party disagree with.”
But Boehner, Schumer hinted politely, would have to offer up more.
“I would say two things, though, in relation to — when you unpack the Speaker’s speech, there is a premise that doesn’t quite work,” Schumer added. “We’re going to have to help him move others in the Republican Party away from it. Part of his speech, he talked about dynamic scoring. This idea that if you cut taxes you will increase revenues. Well, it’s about time we debunked that myth. It’s a Rumpelstiltskin fairytale. … The Speaker’s going to need some help in bringing his colleagues along to a good position on revenues.”
Behind the scenes, aides to leaders of both parties are more blunt about likely outcomes. One top Democratic Senate aide said if Republicans don’t come around on high-income taxes, they’ll “push the country off the fiscal cliff.” Another called Boehner’s Wednesday Capitol address a substantive “nothing burger.”
Republicans insist that the votes don’t exist in the House to return top tax rates on high-income earners to their Clinton-era levels. And aides privately acknowledge that the only way to achieve that outcome legislatively would be to allow all the Bush tax cuts to expire, and reinstate the middle class tax cuts separately when the new Congress is sworn in.
But perhaps on the off-chance that a less acrimonious, bipartisan agreement can be reached before Jan. 1, party leaders are, for the moment, playing nice with each other.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.