With Fiscal Cliff Looming, Washington Scrambles For Deal

Audie Cornish talks with NPR's David Welna about the latest on negations to avert the so-called fiscal cliff.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Two days after Christmas and it's come to this. The Senate convened today, in a rare holiday session, with less than five days to go until big spending cuts and tax increases kick in. This last minute flurry was not the plan, according to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaking here after a White House meeting with top congressional leaders last month.

SENATOR HARRY REID: There is no more let's do it some other time. We're gonna do it now and I think we feel very comfortable with each other and this isn't something we're gonna wait until the last day of December to get it done.

CORNISH: But here we are at nearly the end of December. So will Congress get it done? Joining me from the Capitol is NPR Congressional correspondent David Welna. And, David, late today we learned that President Obama has invited congressional leaders from both parties to the White House.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: That's right, Audie. And this is a new development. We had not known that this was going to be happening. And many people are taking it as a sign that this is either a breakthrough or possibly a hail Mary pass, just given that there will only be about four days left to work out some sort of a deal.

CORNISH: So what do the prospects seem to be for Congress actually agreeing on a deal in time to avert the fiscal cliff?

WELNA: Well, Audie, I'd say, at this point, the chances may be slim to none. Majority Reid said today on the Senate floor that it looks like we're now headed over the fiscal cliff and he says it's all up to House Speaker John Boehner to keep that from happening.

REID: The Speaker just has a few days left to change his mind, but I have to be very honest, Mr. President. I don't know, time-wise, how it can happen now.

WELNA: That said, Boehner's office did confirm this afternoon that the House will be reconvening in Sunday the second to the last day of the year. This could be a sign that there's still hope for a deal or it could simply be in response to Democrats who've chided House Republicans all day long today for not showing up this week on Capitol Hill.

CORNISH: So what kind of deal might they actually be pursuing at this point?

WELNA: Well, it's not going to be the kind of grand bargain that was once discussed and hoped for because there's just no time to work out and pass such a sweeping deficit-cutting deal. Instead, we now have Speaker Boehner urging Senate Democrats to pass a House bill that extends all the expiring tax cuts and that's not likely to happen in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Leader Reid is urging Boehner to take up and pass a bill that the Senate's approved that extends tax cuts for household income up to $250,000 a year. That, too, is not likely to happen. What we do know is that there's been no sign of talks going on between Democrats and Republicans up here on the hill. Harry Reid said this morning that that's the fault of the Republican leaders.

REID: Speaker Boehner's unwilling to negotiate. We've not heard a word from Leader McConnell. Nothing's happening. Democrats can't put together a plan on their own because without participation of Leader McConnell and Speaker Boehner, nothing can happen on the fiscal cliff. And so far, they are radio silent.

WELNA: Still, Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell did say on the Senate floor this afternoon that Republicans are waiting to first see what Democrats propose and he said that they haven't seen much yet.

CORNISH: Now, a few weeks ago, we heard from Speaker Boehner. Now, we're hearing from the Senate leader. But if there's going to be a deal, I assume we have to hear from Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. I mean, talk about his role in this.

WELNA: Well, for anything to get done by New Year's, Mitch McConnell would have to get his Republican troops in line and make sure that none of them jams things up with a filibuster because they'd just run out of time and not be able to pass anything. And he's done this kind of a deal before, but McConnell is up for reelection in 2014 so he may not be too excited about getting out in front on this, especially after Speaker Boehner was humiliated last week not being to push through his so-called plan B.

CORNISH: Now, there's also some conferring views on the Capitol from Democrats and Republicans who actually think it may be to their advantage if a deal is not reached by New Year's. What's the political calculus there?

WELNA: Well, Democrats see several things in their favor if we go over the cliff. First, they think the egg would be on Republican's faces if that happens. Second, Democrats in January will have more members in both the House and the Senate and third, they would also have renewing the expired tax cuts to use as leverage to try to get the debt ceiling limit raised, which they'll have to do early next year and extend other lapsed provisions, such as emergency unemployment insurance that's going to run out and a fix for the alternative minimum tax; and even getting a big stop gap spending bill since the current one is going to run out in March.

Republicans think that by not agreeing to any deal on tax cuts now, they would be voting after the first of the year to cut taxes, possibly not for everybody, but that it would be a much easier vote to sell back to their constituents in their districts.

CORNISH: NPR's David Welna, speaking with us from the Capitol. David, thank you.

WELNA: You're welcome, Audie.

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