They also relented on the politically sensitive issue of the estate tax, according to a detailed account of the Democratic offer obtained by The Washington Post, promising to stage a vote in the Senate that would guarantee that taxes on inherited estates remain at their current low levels, a key GOP demand.
Still, McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader, was holding out to set the income threshold for tax increases even higher, at $550,000, according to people close to the talks in both parties. And he was protesting a Democratic proposal to raise taxes on investment profits for households with income above $250,000.
The two sides were also sharply at odds over automatic spending cuts set to decimate budgets at the Pentagon and other federal agencies next month. Democrats were seeking to delay the cuts, known as the “sequester,” until 2015, without identifying other savings to compensate. They were also pressing to extend unemployment benefits, farm subsidies and Medicare payments to doctors, again without offsetting cuts as Republicans demand.
Unless the two sides can reach agreement, historic tax hikes are set to hit virtually every American on Jan. 1, potentially driving the nation back into recession. An impasse would also throw the coming tax filing season into chaos, as nearly 30 million unsuspecting taxpayers would be required to pay the costly alternative minimum tax for the first time.
As Biden and McConnell traded phone calls deep into the night, lawmakers waited anxiously for news. Though members of both parties received lengthy briefings from their respective leaders about the status of the talks, senators were just as likely to predict that the nation was on the verge of a self-inflicted economic crisis as they were to predict that salvation was at hand.
“I think we’re going over the cliff,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) wrote on Twitter in the middle of the day.
“The two parties are so close that they can’t afford to walk away,” Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) countered hours later. “I continue to be optimistic.”
Biden, a veteran dealmaker who served in the Senate for 36 years, entered the talks Sunday at McConnell’s request after the Republican leader said he had grown “frustrated” by the pace of negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
Personal relations between the two Senate leaders have deteriorated after two years of draining battles over the budget. On Sunday, their antagonism produced a confusing day when talks seemed to be collapsing even as the two sides were moving closer to agreement on several fundamental issues.