Attempts to avert the infamous "fiscal cliff" are like a super-high-stakes card game. But it's a game in which one player has to go into a back room before he makes his bet and get the approval of a herd of rabid ferrets.
That would be House Speaker John Boehner. Across from him at the card table sits the president. When Barack Obama won his big Senate race in 2004, his pals in the Illinois legislature celebrated with one last evening of poker, in which they took the senator-elect for every dollar in his wallet.
So perhaps it was not surprising that in the negotiations, the president gave up quite a bit. You will remember that Mr. Obama had campaigned on keeping the Bush-era tax cuts only for the American middle class: families making $250,000 a year or less. Well, possibly not all truly middle-class. Still, that was his line in the sand. There were long stretches this fall when tax-hike-for-over-$250,000 seemed to be his only specific plan for the next four years.
But this week he let Mr. Boehner move the line. Pushed it up to $400,000. Plus, Mr. Obama gave way on entitlements by agreeing to change cost-of-living adjustments on Social Security. Then, all eyes turned to the House speaker. And the rabid ferrets.
Try to guess what John Boehner did next, based on some of his recent comments about the fiscal-cliff negotiations.
What Mr. Boehner did was to announce that instead of signing off on a deal, he was going to go back to his members and ask them to vote for "Plan B."
We had never met Plan B before, but it turns out it's a bill to raise taxes only on the Americans who make $1 million or more a year.
"Unfortunately, today we will have to go to Plan B because we want to make sure we do not go off the cliff," said the House GOP whip, Kevin McCarthy.
"Plan B" does not sound like something that would protect you from a cliff. It sounds like a less-than-desirable option for dental coverage.
"I hope the president will get serious soon," said Mr. Boehner as he explained the complex thinking behind his bill during a 50-second press conference.
If only Mr. Boehner had taken Mr. Obama's deal, liberal Democrats could now be enjoying a much-anticipated opportunity to complain that the president had sold them out. He had all the cards, and he gave away the $250,000 one! He dropped the ace of entitlements! But, once again, Republicans in the House of Representatives conspired to make Mr. Obama look good.
At least the president made a serious offer while Mr. Boehner put up ... Plan B. Which does virtually nothing but continue the Bush tax cuts for those making less than $1 million a year. All else goes over the cliff. Laid-off workers getting extended unemployment benefits. Doctors treating Medicare patients.
Honestly, it sounded like something that Eric Cantor typed up on his smart phone on the way over from his office.
"I know the Democrats are baffled at what we're doing," said Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, during a rather sullen Rules Committee meeting. "We're trying to find a bill we can pass."
Thursday night, we found out how busy the ferrets have been when Mr. Boehner couldn't get a majority of them to vote for Plan B, pulled it off the table, suggested that Mr. Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid negotiate a deal that they think enough Republicans might support and wished everybody a Merry Christmas. See ya sometime next week!
Sure, blame the ferrets.
Plan B was just an attempt to shift the blame if the country falls over the fiscal cliff, destroying whatever faith Americans had in their government and creating terror on Wall Street.
No matter what happens, let's agree never again to call anything a "fiscal cliff." Imagine what would have happened if Congress and the president had said they were negotiating to "put the fiscal horse back in the barn" by Jan. 1. We'd be at the same place, but would anybody be talking about a potential stock market collapse? I think not.
Would it be so bad if the Bush tax cuts just expired? It would save around $4 trillion over the next 10 years. The deficit would plummet, the fiscal horse would be back in his stall, the gate to the pasture would be locked.
Unfortunately, nobody in Washington seems to think this is a good plan. If they can't make a deal, on New Year's Eve you can run around yelling: "The fiscal horse is about to fall over a cliff!" This, people, is what is known as having it all.
Gail Collins is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.