“This is a town where each side seems to see a political advantage to their position when nothing is happening,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who will retire Thursday and cautioned his colleagues against leaving the tricky negotiations for newcomers who will take office in a few days. “There’s enough blame to go around.”
Late Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) were engaged in high-stakes, last-minute talks on a deal that would avert the most significant economic effects of the fiscal cliff. There remained hope on Capitol Hill that a breakthrough could lead to votes in the House and Senate on Monday, ahead of a midnight deadline.
Lawmakers said they were deeply frustrated — even disgusted — by the spectacle of the lurching talks. But they said they have become resigned to last-second dealmaking in a divided Congress.
“It’s under the crucible of a time constraint that this place acts,” Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.) said.
For both parties, there are some logical incentives to go over the cliff.
Democrats are fresh off electoral victory in November and fighting a reputation that they too easily give ground. The way they see it, they’ll get what they want no matter what. Either they get a deal that includes tax increases on the wealthy or they go over the cliff. At that point, taxes would go up for everyone, and the Democrats would immediately move to cut rates for all but the wealthy.
They may, in fact, get more of what they want by waiting. As of late Sunday, for instance, Democrats appeared willing to agree to raise rates only for those making more than $400,000. But if they go over the cliff, Democrats would have less need to negotiate and could seek to set that number at $250,000, their original goal.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) on Sunday reiterated a view she has pressed repeatedly with her Democratic colleagues: Going over the cliff is better than agreeing to a bad bargain. “We can’t accept a bad deal just because we’re here,” she said. “We have to keep working to get a good deal.”
Deal or no deal, the longer the current dynamic lasts, the longer Democrats will seek to portray Republicans as beholden to the rich at the expense of the middle class.
“They say that their biggest priority is making sure that we deal with the deficit in a serious way, but the way they’re behaving is that their only priority is making sure that tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are protected,” President Obama said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “That seems to be their only overriding, unifying theme.”