Fiscal Cliff: The Cast of Characters

PHOTO: President Barack Obama speaks with Speaker of the House John Boehner during a meeting at the White House in Wash., DC, in this July 23, 2011 file photo.Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama speaks with Speaker of the House John Boehner during a meeting at the White House in Wash., DC, in this July 23, 2011 file photo.

With fiscal cliff drama unfolding in Washington like a repertory production, here is an insiders' guide to the cast of characters and the roles they'll play in the negotiations to avert automatic spending cuts and tax hikes by the end of the year.

Barack Obama as the Man With the Mandate - President Obama has been here before, having negotiated his way through a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts, a government-shutdown, a debt-limit increase. After he won re-election pushing for higher taxes on the wealthy (and not the middle class), we know what he's pushing for now.

But tax talks have revealed both the campaigner in chief and the compromiser in chief.

In Congress's 2010 lame-duck session, with Republicans set to control the House of Representatives after winning massive gains the previous month, Obama acceded to GOP demands to extend the Bush tax cuts, earning him some centrist plaudits. Bill Clinton even showed up at a White House press conference. At the same time, Obama has stumped hard for more taxes on the wealthy, and on Wednesday, he launched his public-relations campaign for these higher taxes.

But which Obama will show up in the next few weeks?

John Boehner as the Man With the Other Mandate -The speaker of the House might have the hardest job in all of Washington: not just brokering a deal with Obama but selling it to his own party. He has his own "mandate," one that Republicans talk about a lot: the re-election of House Republicans, who won while promising no tax hikes and enactment of Paul Ryan's entitlement proposals -- everything Obama ran against.

Boehner, too, has been here before, having negotiated with Obama on the looming government shutdown and the debt-limit increase in 2011. In his post-election interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer, Boehner said he'd "put revenues on the table, but through reforming our tax code," while holding the line against tax hikes. Boehner and Obama nearly reached a "grand bargain" on spending and revenue last year.

We don't know if another big compromise is in the offing, but Boehner says he doesn't want time to expire: "Republicans are committed to continuing to work with the president to come to an agreement to avert the so-called fiscal cliff," Boehner told reporters Wednesday, as ABC's John Parkinson reported. At the same time, he's working to put the onus on Democrats, telling reporters on Thursday that the other party must come up with a more substantive plan, and that if it doesn't, there's a real risk of going over the cliff.

Tom Cole and Dick Durbin as the Unwelcome Ambassadors - More than anyone else, these two have stuck out their necks for compromise. On Tuesday, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who previously served as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told the House GOP whip team it should follow Obama's call to extend the middle-and-lower-income Bush tax rates and sort the rest out later.

On the same day Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate majority whip, entered the liberal lion's den to press for compromise. "We can't be so naive as to believe that just taxing the rich is going to solve our problems," Durbin told progressives during a speech at the Center for American Progress.

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.

House Conservatives as Chorus - The drama will happen between Obama and Boehner, but we can view the frettings and (possibly) concessions of conservative House Republicans as meaningful (if homogenous) commentary on the deal. If Boehner overestimates his ability to pass another "grand bargain"-esque deal and remain speaker, conservative House Republicans will sing of his downfall.

Ousted Representatives as the Wildcards - Twenty-six House incumbents lost re-election in 2012 -- 10 Democrats and 16 Republicans. Throw in a small handful who abandoned their seats to run for the Senate, and a not insignificant chunk of House members won't be returning next year. Who knows what they'll do? The Republicans may not feel so beholden to the Taxpayer Protection Pledge; the Democrats may not feel as beholden to progressive interest groups. For instance, ousted Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., is entertaining Rep. Tom Cole's suggestion to pass middle-class tax extenders as Obama has requested. Then again, none of them will have to clean up the mess if America goes off the cliff, so maybe the lame ducks will have less incentive to reach a deal.