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A Fiscal Sell-By Date

Republicans have backed off their demand that a "fiscal cliff" deal include the "chaining" (read: cutting) of Social Security benefit increases. Logically speaking, that should mean that a deal to limit the Jan. 1 restoration of Clinton-era tax rates to income below $250,000 should be at hand. But now both sides are grappling over how much of the scheduled automatic budget cut ("the sequester") should take place. At least some Republicans have an interest in delaying a vote past Jan. 1 so they can say they voted for a tax cut, not a tax increase. Pretty much all Democrats have an interest in similarly delaying a vote so they can press Republicans for a deal more favorable to themselves--some stimulus spending, a raising of the deficit ceiling, and a few other items.

The smarter Republicans, including the Republican leaders, seem to grasp that leverage will shift to the Democrats at the stroke of midnight Tuesday. That's why they are in a panic. As usual, the party that's having a hard time grasping how much power it holds is the Democrats, specifically the White House. President Obama previously (and stupidly) suggested he might be willing to go up to a $400,000 threshold for higher tax rates. So if a deal is struck before midnight, it may well include that higher threshold.

But if a deal isn't struck before midnight, the $400,000 threshold should be removed from the table. I would like to hear Obama say "This offer expires Tuesday" before the witching hour is reached. For one thing, it might force a deal (though any such deal should, at the very least, put off the debt-limit fight, extend the payroll-tax cut, and extend various tax credits for lower-income people--all items that, to judge from news reports, are now off the table). And if a deal before Jan. 1 isn't possible--and it probably isn't--then Obama will be on record saying he never intended to retain flexibility on this campaign promise of eight years' standing into 2013. Perhaps the president is already thinking this way. (If no deal is reached, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will push through a bill Monday with the $250,000 threshold, then dare the House not to pass it.) But it would be good to hear him say it out loud: "Read my lips: $400,000 now. $250,000 later. And be grateful I'm not saying $100,000."

Update, Dec. 31: the Democrats have now raised the threshold to $450,000 a year. I repeat: This offer should expire on Jan. 1, and Obama should say so.