Fiscal Cliff: The Cast of Characters

Grover Norquist as the Puppet Master - The founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform denies this role, but that's what Democrats have made him out to be: a behind-the-scenes Rasputin controlling Republicans and enforcing rigid anti-tax discipline.

Norquist does talk to members of Congress who he believes might violate his Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which most Republicans signed as a promise not to raise taxes, but Norquist insists Republicans are accountable to voters, not to him. Nonetheless, "the pledge" has helped, or forced, Republicans to hold ranks against tax increases for decades, and it might again in 2012, although, with a handful of Senate defections, much has been made of Norquist's purportedly waning sway.

Lindsey Graham, Saxby Chambliss, Lisa Murkowski and Bob Corker as 'the Pledge' Violators - All four GOP senators have signaled willingness to break Norquist's pledge to raise revenues and cut a deal, showing that Senate Republicans are more willing to deal than their conservative House counterparts, as expected, and that the Taxpayer Protection Pledge might not hold the GOP's ranks this time.

AFL-CIO, Americans for Prosperity, and the Club for Growth as the Outsiders - What do we want? An improbable outcome that favors our side! When do we want it? Now! When it comes to slashing budgets, interest groups come out of the woodwork to defend their federal dollars -- that's what they're here for -- but a few top-tier players will lead the way, including unions already pressing for no cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and conservative anti-tax, anti-spending groups crusading against tax hikes and for big entitlement reforms.

Mitch McConnell as the GOP Co-Pilot - McConnell could be the GOP's second-most-influential player in the fiscal-cliff talks, but the real action is in the House, where Republicans not only have a majority but are more conservative. With a handful of Republicans signaling more openness to explore revenue options than their House counterparts, the conservative resistance to a compromise will come from the right. Still, McConnell controls enough senators to block legislation, and his power over fiscal-cliff legislation is not insignificant.

Eric Cantor as the Stickler - By now, the possibility of unease between John Boehner and the majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., has been played up and played down in Washington for years, and Cantor is seen as a politically shrewd voice for House conservatives. In 2011, Cantor played the tax skeptic as Boehner negotiated with Obama over a debt-limit deal, and his opposition helped kill the "grand bargain," Matt Bai reported in his New York Times Magazine autopsy of the deal.

Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi as the Pugilists - President Obama and his team of senior advisers, led by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, will drive negotiations for Democrats, but as in past negotiations, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (who actually used to box) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi will supply a harder public edge as Democrats make their case. Pelosi set an aggressive marker by giving ABC's Martha Raddatz a clear "no" when asked, on Nov. 16, if any deal could exclude tax hikes on the wealthy.

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