Pessimism Prevails in Cliff Talks as Time Runs Out

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Dec. 30 2012 7:45 PM

Pessimism Prevails in Cliff Talks as Time Runs Out and Sunday Ends Without a Vote

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) walks toward his office on Capitol Hill Sunday

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

UPDATE: As it became clear that senators wouldn't be voting on any sort of fiscal cliff deal Sunday there are also few hints the two sides are getting any closer to agreeing on a stopgap measure that would prevent taxes from increasing on almost all workers. It looks like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell still can’t agree on basic issues, reports the Associated Press.

One small bright spot is that there seems to be some compromise on the income threshold for higher tax rates, reports the Wall Street Journal. Republicans proposed $550,000 and Democrats have apparently agreed to $450,000, according to Sen. Dick Durbin. But there are still lots of disagreements on other issues. Still, some continue to espouse optimism. And really everyone just seems confused, not knowing whether all the pessimism was part of the usual negative talk before a deal is reached or whether it means there really won’t be a deal at all, points out the Washington Post.

“I’m incredibly disappointed we cannot seem to find common ground. I think we’re going over the cliff,” Sen. Lindsey Graham wrote on Twitter. But Reid, who has been more of a pessimist over the past few days, actually sounded guardedly optimistic. “There’s still time left to reach an agreement, and we intend to continue negotiations,” Reid said. Still, Reid made it clear there would be no votes Sunday night and the Senate will convene again Monday at 11 a.m. That means that if there is a deal, it would have to be pushed through both chambers of congress within 13 hours. If there is no deal, of course, Reid will be moving for a vote on a backup proposal that includes extending current tax rates for income of up to $250,000.

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Sunday, Dec. 30 at 5:15 p.m.: Talks appeared to be back on late Sunday afternoon but there was still a prevailing sense of pessimism about a possible compromise deal on the fiscal cliff. Republican senators said after an afternoon cacus meeting they had withdrawn the demand that the so-called “chained CPI,” which would effectively cut Social Security payments, be included in any last-minute fiscal cliff stopgap measure, reports the Wall Street Journal. It seems Republcians realized that fighting against raising taxes for the rich while also advocating for cuts in Social Security was “not a winning hand,” as Sen. John McCain said. The decision might push talks forward but Republicans don’t really sound optimistic, saying that Democrats are trying to increase taxes in order to boost spending, not cut the deficit, reports the New York Times.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell  has reportedly talked to Vice President Joe Biden twice Sunday but it’s still far from clear whether Biden will be offering his own counter-offer to a Republican plan. One Democratic aide tells the Journal that the two sides seemed to be moving further apart as negotiations got more specific. The Washington Post points out that an earlier statement by Majority Leader Harry Reid appeared to suggest it was Democrats and the White House that are resisting negotiations by failing to present a counter-offer and that’s why McConnell appealed to Biden. A Republican aide tells the Post that most GOP proposals presented over the last few days included the “chained CPI” measure but insisted Democrats waited until Sunday to describe it as a deal-breaker.

Sunday, Dec. 30 at 2:30 p.m.: As the clock continues ticking, it’s appearing increasingly unlikely that Republican and Democratic Senate leaders will be able to reach a last-minute stopgap deal on the fiscal cliff. Negotiations appear to have broken down Sunday afternoon after Republicans said any deal needs to include a new way of calculating inflation—known as “chained CPI”—that would effectively lower payments for Social Security beneficiaries, reports the New York Times. Democratic sources tell Politico the demand means negotiations have suffered a “major setback.” Although Democrats have shown a willingness to consider the new method to calculate inflation as part of a larger deal they insist it shouldn’t be part of the stopgap measure currently under negotiation.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor just after 2 p.m. that he had appealed to Vice President Biden to intervene in the negotiations, noting he had delivered an offer to Democrats Saturday night and had not heard back about a counter-offer, reports the Washington Post. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid responded that he was in no position to provide a counter-offer. Although McConnell had shown “absolutely good faith” during negotiations “we’re apart on some pretty big issues,” Reid said.

Sunday, Dec. 30 at 12:20 p.m.: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have set a deadline of around 3 p.m. on Sunday to finalize a fiscal cliff deal, reports the Washington Post. That's when both leaders plan to convene caucus meetings just off the Senate floor. “At that point, the leaders will brief their rank and file on whether there has been significant progress and will determine whether there is enough support to press ahead with a proposal,” reports the Post.

If they have enough support then legislation would be presented and a vote would be held by noon on Monday at the latest, forcing the House of Representatives to act before midnight on New Year’s Eve. Even if the Senate passes a deal, it’s far from clear whether the House will follow suit. After all, the House Tea Party caucus may want to flex its muscles by rejecting any deal, points out Fox News. “There is no agreement worthy of the American people to be found in the current Washington charade. Better if everyone went home immediately,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich said in a statement. Worrying about the House seems a bit premature as a deal in the Senate still appears elusive. Sen. John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, told CNN that he spoke to key negotiators Sunday morning and “there is no deal yet.”

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.