Fiscal Cliff Attention Shifts To Senate
With just three days left in which they can hammer out a deal to avert at least part of the Fiscal Cliff, attention in Washington has narrowed and shifted to the Senate:
WASHINGTON — At the urging of President Obama, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate set to work Friday night to assemble a last-minute tax deal that could pass both chambers of Congress and avert large tax increases and budget cuts next year, or at least stop the worst of the economic punch from landing beginning Jan. 1.
After weeks of fruitless negotiations between the president and Speaker John A. Boehner, Mr. Obama turned to Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader — two men who have been fighting for dominance of the Senate for years — to find a solution. The speaker, once seen as the linchpin for any agreement, essentially ceded final control to the Senate and said the House would act on whatever the Senate could produce.
“The hour for immediate action is here. It is now,” Mr. Obama said in the White House briefing room after an hourlong meeting with the two Senate leaders, Mr. Boehner and Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader. He added, “The American people are not going to have any patience for a politically self-inflicted wound to our economy, not right now.”
Senate Democrats want Mr. McConnell to propose an alternative to Mr. Obama’s final offer and present it to them in time for a compromise bill to reach the Senate floor on Monday and be sent to the House. Absent a bipartisan deal, Mr. Reid said Friday night that he would accede to the president’s request to put to a vote on Monday Mr. Obama’s plan to extend tax cuts for all income below $250,000 a year and to renew expiring unemployment compensation for as many as two million people, essentially daring Republicans to block it and allow taxes to rise for most Americans.
Bipartisan agreement still hinged on the Senate leaders finding an income level above which taxes will rise on Jan. 1, most likely higher than Mr. Obama’s level of $250,000. Quiet negotiations between Senate and White House officials were already drifting up toward around $400,000 before Friday’s White House meeting. The two sides were also apart on where to set taxes on inherited estates.
But senators broke from a long huddle on the Senate floor with Mr. McConnell on Friday night to say they were more optimistic that a deal was within reach. Mr. McConnell, White House aides and Mr. Reid were to continue talks on Saturday, aiming for a breakthrough as soon as Sunday.
“We’re working with the White House, and hopefully we’ll come up with something we can recommend to our respective caucuses,” said Mr. McConnell, who has played a central role in cutting similar bipartisan deals in the past.
The emerging path to a possible resolution, at least on Friday, appeared to mirror the end of the protracted stalemate over the payroll tax last year. In that conflict, House Republicans refused to go along with a short-term extension of the cut, but Mr. McConnell reached an agreement that permitted such a measure to get through the Senate, and the House speaker essentially forced members to accept it from afar, after they had left for Christmas recess.
This time, the consequences are more significant, with more than a half-trillion dollars in tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts just days from going into force, an event most economists warn would send the economy back into recession if not quickly mitigated. With the House set to return to the Capitol on Sunday night, Mr. Boehner has said he would place any Senate bill before his chamber and let the vote proceed and the chips fall. The House could also change the legislation and return it to the Senate.
If the Senate is able to produce a bill that is largely bipartisan, there is a strong belief among House Republicans that the same measure would easily pass the House, with a large number of Republicans. While Mr. Boehner was unable to muster enough votes for his alternative bill that would have protected tax cuts for income under $1 million, that was because the measure lacked Democratic support, and was roughly a few dozen votes shy of passage with Republicans alone.
“I’ve got a positive feeling now,” said Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, who said a burst of deal-making talk broke out as soon as the leaders returned to the Capitol.
Even if something resembling this deal makes it through the House and Senate, it will only avert a portion of the problems that face us at the end of the year. Left unresolved will be the question of the sequestration cuts and, of course, the debt ceiling. So, yes, we’ll be having this same pointless battle all over again shortly after the 113th Congress convenes.