Lawmakers struggle to produce fiscal deal as ball drop set to ring in tax hikes
Lawmakers were racing Monday to produce at least the framework for a deal that can avert the imminent fiscal crisis, as it appeared increasingly likely that the New Year’s Eve ball drop will coincide with massive tax hikes and spending cuts. A last-ditch effort over the weekend by the Senate so far has failed to produce an agreement, bringing talks — as they often are in Congress — right down to the deadline.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Sunday afternoon that “there’s still significant distance between the two sides.” His Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell, continued talks on the sidelines with Vice President Biden well into the night, according to an aide.
While Biden was brought in Sunday to help referee, it’s unclear whether the three figures might be able to produce a proposal at a reasonable hour Monday. President Obama has already made clear he will press Reid to call a vote on a separate White House plan if nothing is produced.
And even if a bill is produced, drafting it and passing it through both chambers before midnight would be a herculean task. As an alternative, lawmakers could potentially pass a bare-bones bridge bill extending current tax rates until a broader package can be approved. Or they could let the tax rates lapse, only to patch up the problem in early January.
Or, in the worst-case scenario, the stalemate drags on, and more than $600 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts kicks in with no relief in sight.
This scenario, economists warn, could easily trigger another recession.
Several stumbling blocks emerged Sunday in negotiations that could hold up a deal in the near-term. Initially, Democrats objected to a Republican proposal that would change the way Social Security benefits are calculated — effectively reducing benefits over time.
But as Republicans began to ease off that demand, both sides continue to haggle over which Americans should see their taxes rise. Democrats want households making over $250,000 to see a hike, while Republicans want to raise that threshold significantly. Late Sunday, Republicans voiced the most concern about a Democratic push to use new tax revenue for new spending.
“The biggest obstacle we face is that President Obama and Majority Leader Reid continue to insist on new taxes that will be used to fund more new spending, not for meaningful deficit reduction,” said Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee.
Reid said late Sunday afternoon the Social Security provision — knows as chained CPI — never should have been added to what would now be a basic, final-hour deal that would include taxes increases for top earners and perhaps an extension of unemployment insurance and a promise to negotiate later on spending cuts.
Reid mentioned in passing that he had a new proposal, but a Reid staffer clarified afterward that Democrats have yet to make a formal counter offer.
Should Congress fail to reach a deal, a mix of $600 billion on tax increases and federal cuts in 2013 would start to kick in Jan. 1.
“We can’t accept a bad deal just because we’re here,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “It’s real disturbing we were thrown in a change to Social Security at the last minute.”
Signs that a deal was unraveling surfaced by mid-afternoon when Reid said his party could not make a counteroffer to Republicans. And McConnell said he had to call Biden to “jump-start” the negotiations.
The Senate got to work on a compromise plan after House Speaker John Boehner’s proposal in the Republican-controlled House collapsed less than two weeks ago.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said earlier Sunday the chances of Congress cutting a deal before the deadline were “exceedingly good.” However, he sounded downcast about the process and the outcome.
“Whatever we accomplish, political victory to the president,” the South Carolina senator said on “Fox News Sunday.” “He’s going to get tax rate increases. … And the sad news for the country is, that we have accomplished little in terms of not becoming Greece or getting out of debt.”
If Reid and McConnell cannot reach a deal, Reid purportedly will present Obama’s bare-boned plan of tax increases for families making more than $250,000 annually and extending unemployment insurance.
Obama said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Congress should “first and foremost” prevent taxes increases for the “vast majority” of Americans.
“We have been talking to the Republicans ever since the election was over,” the president said during the interview, taped Saturday. “They have had trouble saying yes to a number of repeated offers.”
Republicans immediately criticized Obama’s remarks.
“Americans elected President Obama to lead, not cast blame,” Boehner said.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said Sunday: “While the president was taping those discordant remarks yesterday, Senator McConnell was in the office working to bring Republicans and Democrats together on a solution.”