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May 29, 2015

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No deal in sight as lawmakers prepare to work through holiday

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Associated Press

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., retreats to a closed-door meeting with fellow Democrats as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and he work to negotiate a legislative path to avoid the “fiscal cliff” on Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012.

They’re eating pizza. They’re wearing jeans. And they’re bracing themselves to be in session on New Year’s Eve — the first Congress to do so in more than forty years.

This is what the fiscal cliff looks like from the perspective of rank-and-file lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

As of Sunday, the Senate and the House of Representatives are back in Washington, D.C. Most of them are just sitting around and waiting.

“They’re telling us that we may very well be here on the 2nd, and if you’re planning on going home for New Year’s, which I will not be … it probably isn’t a good idea,” said Nevada Rep. Shelley Berkley.

At the end of last week, Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell had set themselves a 3 p.m. Sunday deadline to come up with a deal to avert the fiscal cliff, the combination of tax rate hikes and government cuts that are scheduled to take effect Tuesday, absent congressional action.

But by midday Sunday, those talks seemed to have stalled, and after a long day of meetings on the fiscal cliff, the House and Senate disbanded Sunday evening with no signs of a deal in sight.

“There is still significant distance between the two sides, but negotiations continue,” Reid said, dismissing the Senate on Sunday night.

The Senate and the House are scheduled to return to business Monday morning — but as they departed the Capitol, it was clear that few knew what that business would be.

“There’s no details to discuss because nobody knows. The House Republican leadership doesn’t even know,” said Berkley, who, for the first time in her career, showed up to the House wearing jeans.

“I just got off the plane,” she said. “What are they going to do, file an ethics complaint against me for not being properly attired?”

Berkley marveled in frustration at how little progress was being made so close to the fiscal cliff deadline.

“They’re not hiding anything from us. They’re not trying to keep a secret. They don’t know,” Berkley said.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., followed by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., second from right, leaves the Senate chamber to meet with fellow Republicans in a closed-door session as the "fiscal cliff" negotiations continue at the Capitol in Washington, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012.

“They told us to be fluid, flexible, and there was another F,” said Nevada Rep. Mark Amodei, emerging from a meeting of House Republicans on Sunday evening to discuss the fiscal cliff and musing over a red Solo cup of soda about how many of these to-the-brink situations he’d experienced in his 16 months of Congress.

“The discouraging thing for me personally is I hope this doesn’t become the new way of doing business,” he said.

Berkley and Amodei haven’t agreed on much when it comes to the fiscal cliff. Their voting records are opposites when it comes to past tax measures: Amodei has voted for measures to extend the Bush-era tax rates at all income levels, while Berkley has voted against them.

They don’t even agree as to whether the Tuesday deadline is truly a zero barrier to get a deal done.

Amodei called the deadline a “manufactured drama-crisis,” while Berkley stressed that it was incumbent on this Congress to “clean up our own mess.”

But they agree that a deal shouldn’t be taking quite this long.

“There isn’t anything we’re discussing that isn’t doable. ... Let’s do this thing for god’s sakes!” Berkley said.

Democrats and Republicans are currently stuck between competing offers and competing philosophies on the fiscal cliff. At the heart of the matter is a difference of opinion about which tax rates should be extended and which should be allowed to rise, with Democrats arguing that reduced tax rates should be kept in place only for incomes up to $250,000 and Republicans angling for something higher.

Berkley already has moved to the right of her colleagues, saying she’d be happy to vote for an offer that raised that tax rate level to $500,000.

“I know it sounds outrageous if you’re supporting your family on 40, 50 thousand dollars a year, but there are some areas of the country where $250,000 is hardly millionaire status,” Berkley said. “So a more appropriate number, so if we came close to that, I would support it.”

Amodei, meanwhile, expressed frustration that Congress was wasting this much energy over a disagreement on tax rates and spending cuts.

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Reporters surround Assistant Majority Leader Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., outside the Senate chamber during negotiations on the "fiscal cliff" at the Capitol in Washington, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012.

“We’re all nibbling around the edges on the obvious battle of revenue vs. cuts,” he said. “The real money to the federal government is you’ve got to get the economy going again. ... (To) provide some stability and predictability, you have to do something about the regulatory onslaught. That’s where the real guts of it is.”

Earlier on Sunday, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller was joking with Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski that they could “solve the whole thing” by auctioning off federal land in Nevada and Alaska — and competing over whose state’s public lands would bring in more dough.

“They have more, but is it worth anything? We’re lower 48,” Heller joked. “You can drive to San Francisco, L.A. ... but they have oil.”

Heller said Sunday that he also would support a deal that hovered around the $500,000 mark and indicated that he was increasingly optimistic one would be struck.

But before these Nevada lawmakers get a chance to register their opinion in a vote, senior lawmakers, including Reid, have to agree on a deal.

Heading into Sunday, Reid and McConnell sounded confident that they would be able to come up with an accord by midday.

But when the time rolled around, Reid declared himself unable to mount a counteroffer — and McConnell began frantically telephoning Vice President Joe Biden to intervene, even interrupting a meeting with Senate Republicans to field calls from his old friend from the White House.

As the two Democratic power-brokers have engaged McConnell in good cop/bad cop negotiations, House leaders readied themselves to field any new bills from the Senate on Monday morning.

In the meantime, it appears most of what even House leaders will be doing is waiting.

“Every time over the last two years that I’ve gotten away from regular order, I’ve gotten burned. I am staying with regular order,” Amodei quoted House Majority Leader John Boehner as telling Republicans in a meeting Sunday night. “I don’t know if or what the Senate’s going to do.”

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