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Ruth Marcus / Politics

Here We Go Again

WASHINGTON -- Last week, I described the "fiscal cliff" deal as a pathetic punt. In light of later developments, I am worried that characterization was overly optimistic.

The punt part stands: The expiration of the Bush tax cuts, and Republican desire to continue them in perpetuity, represented a point of maximum leverage to obtain a grand-enough bargain on tax revenue and entitlement reform.

That moment was squandered, perhaps irretrievably. "We should never, ever, ever try another grand bargain, at least until the president is willing to lay all his cards on the table," Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker told me. Corker's comments are all the more depressing because he is a political realist who laid out his version of a grand bargain during the cliff talks -- a bargain, by the way, that would have yielded way more in new tax revenue than what President Obama received in the deal.

But the elusiveness of the bargain is not the reason for my growing pessimism. My glumness stems from the imminence of three new cliffs -- most importantly, the government's bumping up against the debt ceiling -- combined with Republicans' stated refusal to accept any new taxes beyond what was just agreed to.

No new taxes was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's message as he made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows. "The tax issue is finished, over, completed," he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos. "That's behind us."

Perhaps this is just a bargaining position, but McConnell is too canny to be so dogmatic if he envisions ultimately having to back down. And other Republicans more open to raising revenue than McConnell have been similarly insistent. Of President Obama's ability to win new tax revenue, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander told me, "He just lost that opportunity -- that's gone."

Which sets up the following conundrum:

(1) The president says he will not negotiate on the debt ceiling.

(2) The president says he will not accept a spending-only deal. "If Republicans think that I will finish the job of deficit reduction through spending cuts alone ... then they've got another thing coming. That's not how it's going to work," Obama said even before the House voted on the cliff deal.

(3) Republicans say they will not accept new revenue.

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