Fiscal cliff talks in danger of foundering in the Senate; Mitch McConnell seeking help from Vice President Joe Biden

WASHINGTON — The 11th-hour negotiations for a fiscal cliff deal in the Senate stalled Sunday, as Democrats failed to respond to a GOP proposal, and the Republicans asked Vice President Joe Biden to get involved and jump-start the talks.

The two sides disagreed on how much federal spending should be reduced to accompany tax increases, and they also dickered over where to set the threshold for income tax rate increases on the wealthy.

Among the sticking points was a Republican demand for Social Security cuts that the White House had agreed to earlier in the month, but which Democrats said was no longer on the table at this late stage. The GOP later backed off that request, according to several Republican senators.


Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell emerged from behind closed doors at about 2 p.m. Sunday and said Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democrats had not submitted a counteroffer to the proposal he made on Saturday evening.

He had expected the Democrats counter at 10 a.m., but it never arrived. McConnell said he was seeking an intervention from Biden.

“I am willing to get this done, but I need a dance partner,’’ McConnell said on the Senate floor. “I am concerned about the lack of urgency here. There is far too much at stake for political gamesmanship.’’

A somewhat chagrined Reid, also on the Senate floor, acknowledged after McConnell spoke that the Democrats had been unable to produce counterproposal for McConnell. Reid said he had been in consultation with President Obama.

“At this stage, we are not able to make a counteroffer,’’ said Reid. “The Republican leader has shown absolutely good faith. But it’s just that we are far apart on some pretty big issues.’’

The Senate is seeking to produce a proposal for votes in the Senate and the House that could avert more than $500 billion in automatic tax increases and spending cuts that are scheduled to take effect on Tuesday, New Year’s Day. Public anger and frustration is building at the lack of action by Congress to a looming crisis that could produce a recession in 2013 if it is not resolved within a few weeks.


Reid said a key stumbling block in Sunday’s negotiations was a Republican demand for cuts to Social Security that Democrats are now unwilling to accept. The White House two weeks ago had said Obama was willing to the Social Security cuts, by using a new formula to reduce the size of annual cost-of-living increases.

Reid said that proposal is no longer on the table, now that the Senate is trying to produce a stripped-down agreement rather than the broader deal Obama and House Speaker John Boehner had been attempting to reach earlier in the month.

Some Republicans told reporters as the afternoon wore on that a Social Security reduction was not something they were insisting upon, but that more spending cuts needed to be identified in a potential agreement to offset tax increases on the wealthy.

“Taxes on the wealthy, we know that will happen today, tomorrow, or in the next two weeks, but what (Democrats) are now proposing is spending it all,’’ said Republican Senator Robert Corker, of Tennessee. Corker said $110 billion in automatic “sequester’’ cuts — the budget cut end of the fiscal cliff — should not be delayed, as Democrats were seeking.

Sunday began with what has become a negative rhetorical routine, with a public exchange of accusations by Obama and Boehner. In a prerecorded interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,’’ Obama said Republicans had failed to compromise and accept concessions that the president said he has made.

“The offers that I’ve made to them have been so fair that a lot of Democrats get mad at me,’’ Obama said. “I offered to make some significant changes to our entitlement programs.


“The way they’re behaving is that their only priority is making sure that tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are protected. That seems to be their only overriding, unifying theme,’’ he said.

Boehner issued a statement that was sharply critical of the president soon after the “Meet the Press’’ broadcast.

“Americans elected President Obama to lead, not cast blame,’’ Boehner said. “The president’s comments today are ironic, as a recurring theme of our negotiations was his unwillingness to agree to anything that would require him to stand up to his own party.’’

“We’ve been reasonable and responsible. The president is the one who has never been able to get to yes,’’ he said.

The party leaders in the Senate began negotiating toward a scaled-back deal on Friday after a meeting with Obama at the White House. That provided the greatest hope for a deal since Dec. 17, when Obama offered to reduce the amount of future Social Security cost-of-living increases and said he would accept a $400,000 threshold for tax increases on the wealthy, instead of $250,000.

Boehner stepped away from that negotiation and unilaterally pursued a bill in the House to allow tax cuts to expire only for people earning more than $1 million.

Predictions that Washington would go over the fiscal cliff began to rise after Boehner failed to rally his GOP majority around that plan and never brought it up for a House vote.

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