WASHINGTON — The momentary optimism that Washington could resolve the stalemate over New Year's Day tax hikes turned quickly Saturday to the backroom number crunching needed to broker what remained a difficult deal.
Top congressional leaders and their aides holed up inside the Capitol, swapping potential scenarios that might yield enough votes to pass legislation to prevent a tax increase on all but the wealthiest Americans.
The work being done off the Senate floor, in the offices of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) involves such tricky math that even if the political will exists to craft a compromise, partisanship may still prevent one. How to deal with income and estate taxes, as well as extended long-term unemployment benefits, remain among the stickiest issues.
"We've been in discussions all day, and they continue. And we'll let you know as soon as we have some news to make," McConnell said Saturday night as he left the Capitol. "We've been trading paper all day and talks continue into the evening."
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) stopped by the negotiations in the morning as a light snow dusted the city, but by midday tourists milling about the Capitol were snapping photos of the empty corridor outside his office. The Democratic leaders, Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), did not come to the Capitol but remained involved in the talks.
President Obama, who received updates at the White House, used his weekly address to put pressure on congressional leaders. "We just can't afford a politically self-inflicted wound to our economy," he said. "The economy is growing, but keeping it that way means that the folks you sent to Washington have to do their jobs."
Congress will convene for a rare Sunday afternoon session, with the Senate opening at 1 p.m. and the House at 2 p.m. Votes could come as soon as Sunday but most likely would be pushed to Monday as talks continue. Both parties will meet behind closed doors Sunday afternoon to consider their options.
If no agreement is reached, Obama reminded Republicans, he'll call for a vote on a proposal that would block the tax hike on income of less than $250,000 and would extend the unemployment insurance that expired Saturday for 2 million out-of-work people.
Obama's threat capitalizes on a key advantage in the tax-and-spend battle: Without a compromise, taxes will go up on everyone Tuesday, when the George W. Bush-era tax cuts expire. Republicans who oppose his bare-bones bill would be in the awkward position of protecting the wealthiest at the expense of the middle class.
"I believe such a proposal could pass both houses with bipartisan majorities — as long as these leaders allow it to come to a vote," Obama said. "If they still want to vote no, and let this tax hike hit the middle class, that's their prerogative — but they should let everyone vote. That's the way this is supposed to work."
Republicans face the prospect of voting for a tax increase for the first time in two decades, a potential milestone that has deeply divided the party. Still, they suggested Saturday that they could stomach raising income tax rates if the income threshold was higher than Obama has proposed — $500,000 might be acceptable, according to a source who asked to remain anonymous to discuss internal negotiations.
The GOP also wants to preserve the current estate tax rate, which is 35% on estates valued at more than $5 million. Most Democrats want the estate taxes set at 45% on those above $3.5 million; if no action is taken, the rate will revert to 55% on estates valued at more than $1 million.
The combination of income and estate tax rates may lead to a deal that could win Republican support, but it could also prove to be a deal killer for Democrats.
With Republicans divided, particularly in the House, Boehner is expected to bring at most barely half of his majority to any deal. Pelosi's support will be vital to pass the measure; she may have to muster about 100 votes.
A White House official stressed that whatever deal the Senate leaders broker will have to win approval from the House Democratic leader, who has shown her ability to deliver — or withhold — Democratic votes.
The deal may also draw support if it contains other must-pass year-end provisions, including a tweak to prevent middle-class households from being hit with the alternative minimum tax and an adjustment to ensure doctors treating Medicare patients do not take a pay cut.
The scene playing out on Saturday was a repeat of the cycle of brinkmanship and crisis that has characterized divided Washington for the last two years.
The optimism expressed by political leaders after Friday's White House meeting of Obama and congressional leaders appeared to be less about a major breakthrough or newfound comity than the hard reality that time was running short.
Congress has proved time and again that it works best — and perhaps only — under deadline pressure. With tax rates set to expire Dec. 31, just hours remained to approve a deal.
Despite the tight timeline, many senators left town, even if just for the day. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) posted a photo on his Twitter account of himself with the Oreo mascot at a college football bowl game in San Francisco.
Others stayed behind. Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) tweeted that he was touring the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum with Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). "Back at it tomorrow," he added.
Yet even with political momentum, the deep divisions within parties were still evident, particularly as Republicans confronted a debate over their party's bedrock principles.
Influential anti-tax activist Grover Norquist encouraged Republicans to move on to the next battles, as Congress will be asked within months to raise the nation's debt limit. Republicans see that as the next point of leverage in their fights with Obama to reduce federal spending, including on Social Security and Medicare.
Any deal being crafted this weekend is not expected to resolve those issues or alter the automatic federal spending cuts coming on Jan. 2, all but ensuring that 2013 will see a return of divisive tax and spending arguments.
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