In the wrangle over America's Fiscal Cliff, Barack Obama holds all the cards

There is no incentive for the Democrats to be conciliatory on the budget negotiations; nor, after the last few years of partisan bad feeling, will there be much inclination among them to do so.

As of now, it looks like the US will go off the so-called “fiscal cliff” tonight at midnight. Several days of extraordinary manoeuvring on and around Capitol Hill in Washington have so far resulted in no deal, and with one day left to galvanise America's behemoth political machinery the chances of one looks slimmer and slimmer.

This means that previously agreed measures (under a deal resolved with a kick-the-can-down-the-road Budgetary Control Act in 2011) will slot into place at midnight, removing a whole raft of tax breaks as well and making sadistically deep cuts to federal spending.

At a glance, it is hard to see why the Republicans are trying to make a deal at all. After all, weren't vicious spending cuts exactly what Romney and Ryan spent an election campaign demanding?

Part of the reason is, however, that the Republicans are afraid of public backlash. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that almost twice as many people blamed the Congressional Republicans for the fiscal cliff than the President; a PEW/Washington Post poll from earlier this month said the same. If the country goes off the cliff, the mid-term elections are going to be very hard on the GOP.

Looked at in detail, going off the cliff looks very unpleasant indeed. Sure, it will cut 607 billion dollars from the national deficit – according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office – but its effects on people directly are brutal. Tax breaks for parents will be halved and the Earned Income Tax Credit will go, affecting low and middle-income workers. A 2% payroll tax break for workers will vanish. Capital gains tax will increase, as well as the tax paid on dividends.

Dramatically, more than 40% of the five million people who have been unemployed for longer than six months will lose their unemployment benefits. There will also be cuts to tax credits for families paying college tuition. High-earning Americans won't escape bracing tax hikes either, especially those who earn more than a million dollars a year.

On top of that, all federal services, from roads to schools to homeland security – with a few exceptions including Medicaid and veterans benefits – face cuts, and perhaps redundancies. The defence budget in particular will be hit very hard, and of course that will have a knock-on effect on the vast number of tertiary industries employed by the Pentagon. All of this, experts agree, will hit the stock market hard, perhaps plunging the country back into recession.

Congress, like schoolchildren, have put off doing their homework until the very last minute, and Senators have been told not to make new years' eve plans. This is going right down to the wire: if a deal is going to be reached, it has to happen today.

It is very possible – almost probable – that America will go over the cliff; but – whisper it – it might not actually be so bad. Many of the harsher of these measures can and almost certainly will be reversed straight out of the gate; and the cuts in federal spending are due to be staggered over the course of the next decade. Obama has already stated that if the country goes off the cliff, then the Senate – controlled by Democrats – would act to pass emergency measures to prevent the loss of unemployment benefits and tax increases on lower-income families. In doing so, he would look like the hero. Certainly, there is no incentive for the Democrats to be conciliatory; nor, after the last few years of partisan bad feeling, will there be much inclination among them to do so.

Politically, Obama is holding most of the cards. The situation is lose-lose for the Republican party. If the country goes off the cliff, the House's Republican Speaker John Boehner and his party will probably be percieved as responsible for it – and are going to be forced into helping the Democrats clean up some of the mess. If it doesn't happen, the President is likely to get the credit. Boehner tried to re-cast this narrative with him as the problem solver with his alternative, the so-called “plan B” - but it was a flop, ridiculed by the Democrats and the media.

Now, he and his Congressional colleagues are scrabbling for anything they can to make the deal palatable to Republicans but still acceptable to the Democrats. They aren't being handed many scraps.

Barack Obama returns to Washington. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.