WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama may be exceptionally bright, highly educated, and an astute campaigner, but, clearly, negotiating is not his strong suit. During the Fiscal Cliff negotiations, he worked with the Republican leaders, Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., and failed to reach agreement. He was criticized for lecturing in meetings and gloating before the cameras when he thought a point had been won.
Rep. Boehner and Sen. McConnell also played to the cameras, and discussions ground to a halt. Boehner could not convince a majority of his House Republicans to compromise, and he punted the effort to the Senate, where Sen. McConnell and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., attempted to work a deal. But this also failed, and McConnell, claiming he needed a “dance partner” reached out to Vice President Joe Biden, a man who had served for years with him in the Senate and is affectionately known as “Uncle Joe.”
In a blink, the situation changed. Biden avoided the cameras. Upbeat and non-accusatory in manner, he dealt with McConnell the old-fashioned way, the way senators have dealt with one another for more than two centuries: cordially, respectfully, and behind closed doors – or, in this case, on telephones behind closed doors.
The result was a deal. But Biden did not stop there. He went to the Capitol and made the pitch to Democratic senators. And the bill averting the Fiscal Cliff passed the Senate. Then he repeated this performance with Democratic members of the House, and that chamber passed the bill. And the president signed it.
People on the far right and far left objected, while some of the more moderate legislators simply held their noses and voted for the bill. In the end, the primary objection was that it was not comprehensive. It postponed the spending cut sequestration by two months. It did not address the debt limit. However, as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., noted, the public should look at what the bill did do. Most importantly, it prevented a tax increase from kicking in that would have impacted 98 percent of taxpayers, and it extended unemployment benefits for a year. By any standard, that is significant stand-alone legislation.
It was legislation that came very close to failing, very close to inflicting incredible pain on most Americans and the economy. However, the flaw that nearly resulted in this failure was not the 112th Congress and not the Democrats or Republicans, or even the inept negotiating. The flaw is in the system. The Constitution allows the Senate and House to make their own rules, and those rules give the leadership significant power, including the power to prevent bills from coming to the floor for a vote. And until this flaw is fixed, the nation is going to have to rely upon skilled political negotiators of the old school. In this instance, the nation and the president were fortunate to have just such a politician in the person of Vice President Joe Biden, the true hero of the day.
U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.