Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell urged Vice President Joe Biden on Sunday to jump into “fiscal cliff” talks in hopes of breaking an impasse that threatens Americans with sharply higher income taxes come January 1.
In a brief speech on the Senate floor, McConnell complained that Democrats had not yet placed a counter-offer to a new Republican proposal, delivered at 7 pm on Saturday, “despite the obvious time crunch.”
“I’m concerned about the lack of urgency here,” the Kentucky lawmaker said. “I think we all know we’re running out of time.”
Besides conferring with his Democratic counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, McConnell said he had reached out to Biden "to see if he could help jump-start the negotiations on his side.”
McConnell added, “The vice president and I have worked together on solutions before, and I believe we can again."
Absent a breakthrough by tomorrow, income tax rates will rise across the board while government spending on domestic and defense programs will be slashed – a combination that some experts warn could plunge the economy into a new recession.
President Barack Obama has pressed for extending Bush-era tax rates on income up to $250,000 but letting them expire above that threshold. Republicans have resisted raising taxes on income at all levels. The two sides have also been at odds on issues like the estate tax and whether to extend unemployment benefits that stand to expire for some two million Americans.
Republican aides said that McConnell and Biden had spoken several times. A Biden aide said the vice president went to the White House after spending Christmas with his family in Delaware.
“We’re willing to work with whoever, whoever can help,” McConnell said. “There’s no single issue that remains an impossible sticking point. The sticking point appears to be a willingness, an interest, or frankly the courage to close the deal.”
“I’m willing to get this done, but I need a dance partner,” he said.
Reid said he had spoken several times on Sunday with Obama but acknowledged that his side had been “unable” to present a counter-offer to the latest Republican proposal.
“He and the vice president, I wish them well. In the meantime I will continue to try to come up something but at this stage I don’t have a counter-offer to make,” Reid said. “We are apart on some pretty big issues.”
Reid said he remained "hopeful but realistic" about the prospects for a breakthrough.
But he also seemed to confirm that one key sticking point was a Republican demand for reducing Social Security payments but adopting a less generous cost-of-living calculation known as “chained CPI” (the CPI being “consumer price index,” a measure of inflation).
“We’re not going to have any Social Security cuts,” Reid declared, saying it would not be “appropriate” in a short-term deal. Democratic leaders have cautiously signaled support for that approach – but only as part of a larger-scale deal that would see the U.S. debt limit raised for a significant stretch of time. Republicans want to use the debt ceiling fight to wrangle deeper government spending cuts.
“We're willing to make difficult concessions as part of a balanced, comprehensive agreement,” Reid said, “but we'll not agree to cut Social Security benefits as part of a small or short-term agreement, especially if that agreement gives more handouts to the rich.”
Republican aides bristled at Reid's characterization, noting that Democrats had not yet returned with a counter-offer. "If they don't like the CPI thing, they can strike it out," one told Yahoo News.
Republican senators, meanwhile, emerged from a closed door party meeting saying that chained CPI was off the table for now. The proposal was "not a winning hand" in the current standoff, John McCain told reporters drily.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner has said that it's up to the Senate to craft a compromise that can clear both chambers of Congress. Boehner suffered an embarrassing setback 10 days ago when conservative opposition forced him to withdraw legislation that would have let taxes rise on income of above $1 million. But a senior Republican aide noted that the exercise allowed the speaker to gauge how many of his rank-and-file would accept any increase in tax rates.