The Jan. 1 deadline presents the lame duck Congress with a golden opportunity to reach at least the framework of a historic agreement, one that would address spending cuts, entitlement restructuring, tax reform, the Bush tax cuts, and the debt ceiling.
More active intervention by the president is a logical and necessary first step to agree on the outlines of a deal. Woodrow Wilson used the joint session of Congress repeatedly to advance his positions. FDR, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan brought to bear the power of the presidency in more intimate gatherings. Bill Clinton mobilized public pressure through the bully pulpit. Obama might use any or all of these tools, largely neglected in his first term, to push forward an agreement.
Mediation is another tool that could facilitate agreement. Two experienced mediators, one from each party and both acceptable to Democrat and Republican negotiators, could be appointed as co-mediators. While legislative mediation has not been tried in Congress, it was used successfully in 2001 by the Illinois General Assembly to craft a telecommunications act that was set to expire when the state regulator and local carriers affected by the law were unable to compromise.
The mediators would first establish to the satisfaction of both sides an efficient procedure for one-party caucuses and sessions where all players meet together. They would secure an understanding of confidentiality during the negotiation process, lessening the pressure of outside interest groups during the delicate dealmaking.