Is there still time for deal?
both parties cautioned that the burst of activity could be more about making sure the other side gets the blame than any real search for a resolution before the Jan. 1 deadline.
Under Senate rules, no deal could run the gauntlet of procedural hurdles in time for a final vote before the deadline without all senators agreeing not to slow progress.
“I have to be very honest,” Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, said Thursday. “I don’t know timewise how it can happen now.”
White House officials continued to put the onus on Republicans to clear a procedural path to a quick vote on a negotiated deal.
“The only way America goes over the cliff is if the Republican leaders in the House and the Senate decide to push us by blocking passage of bills to extend tax cuts for the middle class,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director. “It’s a question of their willingness to put country before party.”
Republicans said there was nothing preventing Reid from putting formal legislation on the Senate floor, and to date, no such bill has been written.
But the contours of a fallback deal did come into view Thursday, even as the will to achieve it lagged behind.
Republicans involved in the talks said both sides would probably be able to agree to extend expiring Bush-era tax cuts up to some income threshold higher than Obama’s $250,000 cutoff but lower than the $1 million sought by the House speaker, John Boehner. To that, leaders would probably agree to add provisions to stop the alternative minimum tax from suddenly enlarging to hit more middle-class households, and possibly to extend expiring unemployment benefits.
Republicans would be far less receptive to Obama’s call to tempo- rarily suspend acrossthe-board spending cuts unless such a suspension was accompanied by significant and immediate spending cuts elsewhere.
But no such deal could be reached without significant, face-to-face negotiations involving the president and congressional leaders, aides said. McConnell aides said a phone call between the president and the Senate Republican leader Wednesday night was the first outreach that McConnell has had from any Democrat since Thanksgiving.
“It appears to me the action, if there is any, will be on the Senate side,” McConnell said Thursday on the Senate floor.
After a House Republican leadership conference call Thursday, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader, announced that House members would return to Washington on Sunday for legislative business, with votes in the evening. Lawmakers were warned that the House might be in session through Jan. 2, the day the 112th Congress disbands. The next day, the 113th Congress will convene, wiping out any unfinished work of the past two years.
Between such glimmers of hope, the rhetoric in Washington on Thursday was anything but conciliatory.
On the Senate floor Thursday, Reid excoriated House Republicans for failing to consider a Senate-passed measure that would extend lower tax rates on household income up to $250,000. He urged House members to return to the Capitol to put together at least a modest deal to avoid the more than half-a-trillion dollars in automatic tax increases and spending cuts set to begin in January.
“The American people are waiting for the ball to drop,” Reid said, “but it’s not going to be a good drop.”
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner, responded sharply to Reid’s comments. “Harry Reid should talk less and legislate more if he wants to avert the fiscal cliff. The House has already passed legislation to do so,” he said, referring to a measure that extends existing cuts at all income levels.