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October 31, 2014

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Fiscal cliff negotiations may hit a lull

WASHINGTON--With the end of the year less than two weeks away, Congress may be about to push pause on the fiscal cliff process.

The House will vote tonight on its fiscal cliff proffer and send it over to the Senate, where Sen. Harry Reid has already sworn it cannot pass. But though House leaders have told their members to wait around for the rest of the weekend for the Senate’s answer, there’s a good chance it won’t come until after Christmas.

Sen. Harry Reid is heading to Hawaii this weekend to pay his last respects to Sen. Daniel Inouye, Hawaii’s longtime senator who died earlier this week and was lying in state in the Capitol in Thursday. He is being buried in Hawaii on Sunday.

Reid won’t be on the ground very long -- only about 15 hours, according to his office -- but the lengthy flight both ways means the Senate won’t be in session to work on a bill through the weekend.

That could potentially set up a very ugly round of sparring, as House and Senate leaders are looking for any excuse to blame the other side for not being proactive enough on a solution to avoid the fiscal cliff.

Reid seemed to sense the potential for that Thursday, issuing a warning to House Republicans.

“The Speaker should understand,” Reid said. “Don’t blame this on Dan Inouye’s passing.”

Reid and Inouye were close. Several years ago, Inouye told Reid he’d be leading the Senate someday and Reid still considered Inouye a mentor and a reasonable and reliable ally in Congress.

Inouye’s death came just a few days after a horrific shooting spree in Newtown, Conn., left 20 children and 6 teachers, dead. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama said those deaths, if it had “done anything, it should just give us some perspective.”

In the days since he died, the outpouring of grief and respect around the Capitol for Inouye has been nothing but bipartisan.

But the fiscal cliff is a high-stakes game, both for the country’s economy, and for the parties’ political standing heading into the New Year. In their private meetings, Republican House members have expressed full cognizance that their party lost ground in the 2012 election, and must parley with the president as a result. But they don’t want to give any more ground than they have to, and in their public showings, House Republicans are warning Democrats against any delay.

“We House Republicans are taking concrete actions to avoid the fiscal cliff,” House Majority Whip Eric Cantor said Thursday morning in a press conference. “Absent a balanced offer from the president, this is our nation’s best option, and Senate Democrats should take up both of these measures immediately.”

Reid and Democratic leaders maintain it is the Republicans who have been, and will be, wasting time by insisting on the vote they are taking Thursday night.

“Middle class families edge closer and closer to the fiscal cliff, each day they were wasting time...it’s very very very unfortunate Republicans are wasting an entire week on pointless, needless stunts,” Reid said. “If Republicans want to ensure that taxes don’t go up Jan. 1, they should simply pass the Senate bill. The Senate bill is the only one that’ll be signed into law.”

But Republicans eschewed a vote on the Senate bill, which would have extended tax cuts up to $250,000 but allowed rates to rise on income levels above that. The Senate passed it by simple majority vote over the summer.

Republicans have instead scheduled a vote for the plan that came to be known as Plan B: It would extend the Bush tax cuts at current levels for incomes up to $1 million, and allow rates to rise back to 1990s levels on everything above.

Ironically, it’s almost the same proposal as Republicans rejected, and most Senate Democrats supported back in 2010, when Congress was deciding how much of the Bush tax cuts ought to be extended for a two-year term.

But this time, Reid has been clear that the bill is “a non-starter in the Senate.” The White House has even backed them up, with the threat of a veto.

“That was two years ago and the Republicans should have taken up the offer then,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, who had authored the 2010 million-dollar tax bill. “You can’t turn the clock back two years: The politics are different, the president wanted 250 [thousand dollars], he campaigned on 250, and won on 250...so that’s where we’re at.”

Democrats have also jeered at Republicans for apparently going through the looking glass, and pushing their more recalcitrant, conservative members to vote for a bill that ignores spending cuts and deals only with tax rates.

“He’s making the most conservative members of his caucus vote for a deal they hate and it’s not even the final deal,” Schumer said Thursday.

Republicans, conscious perhaps of this irony, spent Wednesday night scrambling to put together a companion bill that would address spending. That measure would shift the scheduled $54.7 billion of defense cuts over to domestic programs, which are already scheduled to be cut by the same amount on January 1.

The House will vote on both bills Thursday evening.

Depending on what happens, it is possible that the Senate may then hold votes on the fiscal cliff either Friday or Monday, Christmas Eve. But if talks resume between Obama and Boehner, it is also quite possible the votes won’t happen.

Reid announced Thursday that the Senate would return from Christmas and resume its session on Thursday, December 27.

The tax rate hikes and government spending cuts that comprise the fiscal cliff are scheduled to take effect January 1.

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