Updated 2:48 p.m. - The Senate’s top Democrat said Thursday that he was pessimistic that Washington could avoid the impending fiscal cliff, accusing House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, of running the lower chamber as a “dictatorship.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was unsure there was enough time between now and the end of the year to reach a deal to avoid the combination of spending cuts and tax hikes set to take effect on Jan. 1. Reid said “the only viable escape route” was for the GOP-controlled House to give its approval to a Senate bill that would preserve existing tax rates on income under $250,000.
Senator Harry Reid delivers a statement on the fiscal cliff condemning the actions of Republican leadership, saying he "can't imagine their consciences. They are out there, wherever they are ... and we're here trying to get something done."
“Everyone knows that if they had brought up the Senate-passed bill, it would pass overwhelmingly. But the speaker says, no we can't do that,” Reid said on the Senate floor this morning. “It's [the House] being operated by a dictatorship of the speaker.”
In response, a spokesman for Boehner said in a statement, "Senator Reid should talk less and legislate more. The House has already passed legislation to avoid the entire fiscal cliff. Senate Democrats have not."
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Reid’s remarks suggest there has been no thaw in the stalemate that has plagued Washington for weeks, as consensus continues to elude Republicans and Democrats on averting the fiscal cliff. Amid the standoff, President Barack Obama called Reid and Boehner (along with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell) late Wednesday from Hawaii. The president traveled back to the White House on Thursday following his brief family vacation.
NBC's Chuck Todd weighs in the current state of negotiations in the fiscal cliff crisis, saying it doesn't look that both sides will budge before the deadline hits.
"The leader is happy to review what the president has in mind, but to date, the Senate Democrat majority has not put forward a plan," said a spokesman for McConnell. "When they do, members on both sides of the aisle will review the legislation and make decisions on how best to proceed."
The discord almost gave way to an agreement on Thursday, as outgoing Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, R, posted on social media that he was rushing back to Washington to mull over a new offer Obama had made to Senate Republicans. Alas, those were false hopes; the administration and Senate Democrats flatly denied that they had made any new offer, and said that no agreement was imminent.
Both parties departed Washington on poor terms, a political chasm widened last week by Boehner’s unsuccessful pitch of “Plan B” legislation meant to extend tax rates on income under $1 million. Obama had vowed to veto it, and Boehner’s backup plan was generally regarded as more of a negotiating ploy than a comprehensive solution to the impending fiscal cliff. Nonetheless, conservatives balked at the speaker’s plan, laying bare Boehner’s ability to rally most Republicans behind any deal that even hinted at raising taxes.
And just five days before the onset of the fiscal cliff, Washington was locked in little more than a staring match between the House and Senate.
Republican leaders said in a joint statement on Wednesday that the Senate must amend Republican-passed legislation and return it to the House before any steps can be taken.
“The House will take this action on whatever the Senate can pass, but the Senate first must act,” the GOP leaders said.
But Reid said that arcane Senate rules prevented him from bringing up anything new for a vote. Republican leaders argue that the Senate bill also faces procedural flaws which would prevent it from consideration in the House; Democrats assert that the excuse is nonsense.
In the meantime, it appears that Thursday might be a lost day for negotiations. Obama landed in Washington around midday, but most House members remain in their districts. But Republican leaders notified their rank-and-file members that the House would be in session at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, and remain so for the remainder of the year. The Senate is in session on Thursday, but is concentrating on other unfinished business from this year.
Lawmakers are playing a high-stakes game of chicken as each side dares the other to let higher taxes and deep spending cuts kick in with the new year. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.
The absence of the House, though, prompted Reid to lay into Republicans and fret that a fiscal cliff failure was all but inevitable.
“If we go over the cliff, and it looks like that's where we're headed, Mr. President – the House of Representatives as we speak with four days left after today before the first year aren't here with the speaker telling him he'll give them 48 hours’ notice," he said. "I can't imagine their consciences – they're out wherever they are around the country and we're here trying to get something done."
Mary F. Calvert / Reuters
The U.S. Capitol building is pictured as lawmakers return from the Christmas recess in Washington Dec. 27, 2012.
Amid the standoff, each party was left bracing for the potential political fallout associated with a fiscal cliff failure.
The bleak atmosphere in Washington appeared to be extending across the country, for instance. A Gallup poll conducted Dec. 21-22 – as lawmakers left the Capitol for the Christmas holiday with no deal in hand – found that optimism in leaders’ ability to reach a deal had declined; just 50 percent viewed a deal as somewhat or very likely, versus 48 percent who said a fiscal cliff agreement was not too or very unlikely.
And as Congress and the administration appears set to do anything but, 68 percent of Americans said they thought the principal actors should compromise, versus sticking rigidly to their ideological guideposts.