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FRONTLINE: Cliffhanger

Airs Tuesday, February 12, 2013 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV

For nearly two years, Speaker of the House John Boehner, left, and President ...

Credit: Courtesy of © Oliver Douliery / CNP / AdMedia / Retna Ltd.

Above: For nearly two years, Speaker of the House John Boehner, left, and President Barack Obama, right, have been locked in a struggle that threatens to bring the nation to the brink of financial collapse. "Cliffhanger" reveals the inside story of how the nation's most powerful leaders have failed to solve the pressing problems of debt and deficit.

On the night President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address, FRONTLINE takes an in-depth look at the fiscal crisis that divides Washington and continues to threaten to take the nation to the brink of financial collapse. Based on interviews with key players including Speaker of the House John Boehner, White House adviser Gene Sperling and Obama’s former Chief of Staff William Daley, "Cliffhanger" investigates how a clash of politics and personalities has led to one of the most bitter high-stakes standoffs in modern American history – a duel at the edge of the “fiscal cliff.”

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"Cliffhanger" provides a riveting account of divisions within the Republican Party, including new insights into the struggle between Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor as they took on President Obama and the Democrats over the how to solve the country’s debt and deficit problems.

On one side of this epic battle for control of the GOP is Boehner, an old-school lawmaker with more than two decades of experience cutting D.C. deals. On the other side, a class of 87 freshmen lawmakers who came to Washington after the 2010 midterm election and on the wave of the Tea Party revolution.

“I think the 87 came here with the idea to change Washington,” says former Rep. Jeff Landry (R-LA). “There was a tremendous amount of energy when we first got here.”

Many of the freshmen believed Washington needed dramatic change, not bipartisan compromise. As Boehner repeatedly tried to reach a Grand Bargain with the president to deal with the fiscal crisis, many in his own caucus were against him.

“I had members, more conservative members, who just thought that sitting down with the president was a big mistake. I had some more moderate members who thought that this was not going to go well for me,” Boehner tells FRONTLINE.

The opposition inside the GOP was even stronger than Boehner had thought. At one point Boehner’s friend, Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-OH), even warned him that negotiations with the president could cost him his speakership.

“We sat down and said, ‘You’ve got to pull this back, because you’re way out over your skis. And if you continue down this path, we’re not going to call you speaker anymore, because they’re going to take it from you,’” LaTourette tells FRONTLINE.

Added to the ideological conflict inside the party were personal tensions between Speaker Boehner and the ambitious Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

“Congressman Cantor has a little bit of an edge to him that I guess is an acquired taste,” says former White House Chief of Staff William M. Daley. “And there were a few times where he seemed to, if not cut out Boehner, disagree with the speaker.”

The film also chronicles the hard bargaining, and miscalculations, within the White House and Obama proved unable to hold together a deal. As the country lurched towards default in December, 2012, critics accused Obama of claiming an electoral mandate for his positions belied by the realities of Washington.

In the end there would be no Grand Bargain. Instead, the country now faces a growing federal deficit, automatic spending cuts, a battle to keep the federal government operating, and yet another deadline for raising the debt ceiling. And many in Washington say the most important debate to determine the future may be taking place within Boehner’s own caucus.

“The speaker’s party is searching for its soul. Are we the party of government but not quite as big? Are we the party of lower taxes but no control of government? Or ultimately, are we the party of smaller government and greater personal liberty? The caucus is split on this,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) says.

"Cliffhanger" is produced by Michael Kirk, Jim Gilmore, and Mike Wiser. The director is Michael Kirk. The reporter is Jim Gilmore. The film is written by Michael Kirk and Mike Wiser. The deputy executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is David Fanning.

Preview: Frontline: Cliffhanger

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Watch Cliffhanger Preview on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

This February, as the nation faces yet another round of fiscal crises, FRONTLINE investigates the inside story of Washington’s failure to solve the country’s debt and deficit problems. Drawing on interviews with key players in Congress and the White House, FRONTLINE goes behind the scenes to show how a clash of politics and personalities has taken the nation's economy to the edge of the “fiscal cliff,” and now to a second round of standoffs over the debt ceiling and sequestration. The film explores the deep ideological divide inside the Republican Party and the struggle between House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and House Speaker John Boehner as they take on President Obama and the Democrats.

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