09:42 - Source: CNN
Signs of progress in fiscal cliff battle

Story highlights

Obama and Boehner's attempts at a grand bargain on debt are rerun of past efforts

This time around, Boehner has stronger hold on his caucus, and Obama is ceding less ground

Obama and Boehner had phone call on Wednesday, their first exchange in a week

Former White House official says lines of communication must stay open to reach a deal

Washington CNN —  

President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner have been here before: a high-stakes showdown over the debt, visions of a grand bargain and a looming deadline.

Last year, secret talks between Obama and Boehner – discussions that began over a round of golf – fell apart. So what’s different now?

For one thing, House Republicans who vociferously protested Boehner’s attempts last year to reach a bargain are somewhat subdued this time around and are standing behind the speaker. This is due in no small part to Boehner’s attempts to make clear that he is taking a firmer hand, said David Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report.

Fiscal cliff deal down to wrangling over details

“Boehner was able to break the back of the tea party caucus in passing a debt limit increase last year,” Wasserman said.

For example, four conservative Republicans who’d vocally pushed back against Boehner on those budget and spending issues were removed from the House budget and finance committees for the upcoming congressional session.

“He went against his nature in letting some heads roll from committees. He’s not known for ruling with an iron fist,” Wasserman said. “It’s a warning shot. He’s making an example.”

McConnell move on debt ceiling backfires

After a weekly meeting on Wednesday of all House Republicans in which Boehner gave the loose outline of his offer, members of his caucus offered enthusiastic support. Most Republicans leaving the meeting said they think the speaker’s strategy is a good one.

New Jersey’s Scott Garrett, a leading fiscal conservative who has voted against GOP leaders in the past, said, “The speaker has done an admirable job, I think, of being forthright – so much fuller than the president has been – saying, ‘This is our plan. This is our offer.’ “

Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, believes that there’s a growing sense in the Republican Party that “the president has won this round relative to the rates,” but they still need to sit down and work out the spending part of the deal, which he feels can be reached if the president moves forward with entitlement reform.

House Republicans stick with Boehner on fiscal cliff

Asked why this debate is different, Boehner said Wednesday that his GOP colleagues recognize what’s at stake.

“I think our members understand the seriousness of the situation that our country faces. Trillion-dollar deficits for as far as the eye can see. $16 trillion … every man, woman and child, the number is increasing every single year. As result, our members understand we’ve got to solve the problem, and we will.”

On the other side of the aisle, experts say, Obama, fresh from winning a second term and still smarting from what the administration sees as earlier rebuffed efforts at culling compromise, isn’t keen to budge from demands that Republicans raise taxes on the wealthy.

In remarks to business leaders on Wednesday, Obama said Boehner and Republicans have to take the first step.

“I think there is recognition that maybe they can accept some rate increases as long as it is combined with serious entitlement reform and additional spending cuts,” the president said. “And if we can get the leadership on the Republican side to take that framework, to acknowledge that reality, then the numbers actually aren’t that far apart.”

He added that “we can probably solve this in about a week. It’s not that tough.”

Lawmakers’ long weekend

But the two men have had but one phone call over the past week, and that’s making compromise difficult, says one former senior official who served in the George H.W. Bush White House: “There’s no communication.”

The 41st president faced a similar budget crisis during his time in office, but the lines of communication were more open then, said the source who didn’t want to be identified speaking about internal White House conversations.

“It was very clear that he realized by violating the no new tax pledge, he was putting his presidency on the line, and he was willing to do it for all the right reasons. Had to worry about the (Gulf) war, and Democrats were holding that as a chip,” the source said. Bush was “willing to put everything legitimately on the table without making any summary statements beforehand. That’s what’s different.”

The White House shouldn’t be arrogant, said David Walker, former comptroller general of the United States who has advised lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on crafting a debt resolution.

“I don’t think this was a mandate election at all,” Walker said. “For anyone to say they have a clear mandate from the public I don’t think is credible. The public is saying, ‘we’re tired of the partisan bickering. We want you to go to work and do your jobs.’ “

Obama, Boehner speak, but no action on ‘fiscal cliff’

CNN’s Dana Bash, Tom Cohen and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.