Everyone in Washington right now is after leverage.
Rarely could the political climate crystallize around a single term. It's as though the United States Capitol evolved into a gigantic fulcrum as the sides war over the fiscal cliff, another fractious fight to raise the debt ceiling, an emergency spending bill to cover the losses inflicted by Hurricane Sandy and an internecine tussle over what Republican lawmakers got kicked off what key House committee.
The nexus of public policy and politics strings these altercations together as members try to solve a host of the most vexing issues to simultaneously hit the Capitol in a very long time.
The skirmish over the fiscal cliff is the most obvious one.
"This isn't a progress report," said House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) when he stepped out of his office suite and into an ornate hallway at the Capitol to address the media Friday. "That's because there's no progress to report."
No progress is due to a complex series of maneuvers by the players, designed to maximize their leverage.
For starters, President Obama and Democrats feel they have the upper hand and are loathe to discuss some of the formulas for potential cuts or restructuring entitlement programs until Republicans cede ground on a solitary point.
"When the Republicans decide that they're going to get off this dime and say we have to protect the wealthiest two percent of Americans, 98 percent of Americans should not be held hostage to that," said incoming House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-CA). "And so why all of a sudden seniors in America should take cuts to their services and benefits that are paid for in Medicare or Social Security?"
Democrats are reluctant to move into those areas because they feel they've already surrendered substantial cuts to programs and spending items important to their base in previous agreements. So they wait for Republicans to move first on raising taxes on individuals who earn $200,000 annually or couples who make $250,000 each year.
And that's where Republicans are seeking leverage.
Boehner's in a pickle. Republicans in his conference won't accept tax increases. Moreover, Boehner can't appear eager to cut a deal too quickly as some conservatives are leery about his leadership.
"I think they're 99 percent off the table," said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX) of tax increases. "I think it's a communications war to see who owns the economy."
Republicans believe they can generate the necessary revenue to cover the big deficits by doing the first major retrench of tax policy since 1986. That will take months. So Republicans are searching for some leverage against the Democrats to reach that point next year.
Rep. Tom Rooney (R-FL) says Republicans simply just can't agree to a framework now and bank on the assumption that a tax code overhaul is coming.
"I don't know that we trust the other enough to do tax reform down the road," said Rooney. "If we're compromising, it just can't be a promise for later."
So Republicans scramble to find advantage against Democrats in this fight. And many think they've found their chip.
"The debt ceiling is hanging out there and is the next point of leverage" said rock-ribbed conservative Rep. Steve King (R-IA). "The president controls the cards."
Everyone on Capitol Hill still smarts from last year's brutal fight over raising the nation's credit card limit. The nation is quickly approaching that threshold again. President Obama's initial fiscal cliff proposal included a provision where he could unilaterally raise the debt limit when necessary and spare Congress one of the most noxious votes a lawmaker is ever asked to take. But Republicans see scrapes over the debt ceiling as an opportunity to reduce spending.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) penned a letter this week to Mr. Obama urging him to permit Congress to have ultimate authority over the debt limit.
"Nearly every significant deficit reduction law of the past 27 years has been linked to a debt limit debate. For Congress to surrender its control over the debt limit would be to permanently surrender what has long provided the best opportunity to enact deficit reduction legislation," wrote Portman.
Reps. John Fleming (R-LA) and Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) also introduced a non-binding resolution to try to curb President Obama's debt limit idea.
"This was the most egregious of the president's proposals," said Lummis. "Congress needs to put its foot down."
But White House spokesman Jay Carney said that according to the 14th Amendment, the president doesn't have the sole authority to increase the debt ceiling. Plus, Congressional Democrats want to deprive Republicans of this possible piece of leverage.
"I don't think the debt ceiling has a place in all of this," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) agreed when asked how Boehner and fellow Republicans were trying to use the debt limit as a counterweight.
"The Speaker is indicating that he thinks that is something he wants to keep as leverage. I think keeping the debt limit as leverage is not a reasonable path," said Hoyer.
Meantime, House Democrats jockeyed for their own leverage against Republicans by introducing what's called a "discharge petition" for a measure to renew tax cuts for those earning less than the $200,000/250,000. A discharge petition is a parliamentary tool to pry loose a piece of stalled legislation by going over the Speaker's head. The petition needs 218 signatures. Democrats only have 191 House members right now. But they figure they can hold the petition over the heads of some Republicans who don't sign.
"We only need a few dozen Republicans," said Becerra.
But here's the problem for Democrats. Even if they collect 218 signatures, the House can't consider a discharge petition for at least seven days during which lawmakers conduct legislative business. And by rule, the House can only entertain discharge petitions on the second and fourth Mondays of each month. That means they've blown this coming Monday, December 10. The fourth Monday of the month is Christmas Eve. And discharge petitions can't carry over from this Congress (the 112th) to the next Congress (the 113th which starts in January).
This is why the discharge petition is a leverage gambit for Democrats. If Republicans don't sign (which they're not expected to do so), they can lord it over those GOP members from possible swing districts in television commercials in the 2014 election cycle.
At the same, members of the New York and New Jersey Congressional delegations have angled for a monumental, emergency spending bill for Hurricane Sandy.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) all descended on the Capitol the past two weeks to appeal to Congressional leaders for what was described as a "robust" aid package.
An emergency "supplemental" spending bill, as it's known on Capitol Hill, is an additional measure on top of the 12 spending vehicles Congress controls to run the federal government each year. New York and New Jersey lawmakers sought an $80-90 billion package without offsets to make up the difference. In other words, just as President Obama and Congress wrestle with reducing spending, there's demand for tens of billions in new spending.
"We know that money is short in Washington," conceded New York Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY).
On Friday, the Obama Administration released a $60.4 billion supplemental request, far short of what lawmakers, the governors and the mayor hoped for.
"I disagree with President Obama's decision to not fully request the funding the states of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut say they need to recover and rebuild from the unimaginable," said Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ), who represents one of the hardest hit districts. "Having seen the devastation firsthand in my district during his visit to Brigantine, I'm disappointed President Obama has come to a different conclusion."
In a joint statement, senators from New York and New Jersey wanly characterized the supplemental spending request as "a good start. They simultaneously noted "This is going to be a tough fight in the Congress given the fiscal cliff, and some members have not been friendly to disaster relief."
Remarkably, a senior Congressional leadership aide said that the "under the reformed disaster funding process established last year, it would not need to be offset."
That's sure to inflame some conservatives aligned with the tea party who argue this is the essence of the spending culture in Washington. Republican leaders outraged various conservative organizations ranging from FreedomWorks to the Club for Growth when they bounced four freshman GOPers from prime committee assignments this past week for not toeing the leadership line. Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) was removed from the Budget Committee. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) lost assignments on Budget and the Agriculture Committee. Reps. Dave Schweikert (R-AZ) & Walter Jones (R-NC) were stripped of posts on the Financial Services Committee.
Andrew Roth of the Club for Growth warned Boehner that "if you keep doing this we may have to replace you."
In an audacious move for freshmen, Amash, Huelskamp and Schweikert penned a scathing letter to Boehner demanding a "full and complete written explanation of the rationale for removing us from our current committee assignments." The troika told the Speaker they expected a response by late Monday afternoon.
These fissures are worrisome as conservatives focus their gaze on Boehner to see what sort of deal he may cut with the president over the fiscal cliff - or if he can forge an agreement at all. In other words, if the right of Boehner's conference is so exercised, he might not be able to find the votes to pass anything at all. The only leverage Boehner has is not to cut a deal. He's asked for weeks for the president to produce a measure that can pass both bodies of Congress. The trouble is that such a plan could be a mathematical impossibility considering the struggle to conjure up the votes.
So everyone's locked in now, searching for that bit of leverage as the country hurtles toward the fiscal cliff.
"If we get any time off after Christmas, I may go to Mexico and learn to cliff dive," said Farenthold.
And that's not leverage at all. That's a freefall.