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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The original congressional schedule for this week showed a recess for the House of Representatives for the rest of the year. That's not going to happen. In fact, House members are being told to plan to return for the week between Christmas and New Year's.

GREENE: House Speaker John Boehner said yesterday there are still serious differences between him and the president when it comes to getting an agreement to avoid automatic spending cuts and tax increases, set to take effect January 1.

MONTAGNE: You may notice when we report on the negotiations, those two names - Speaker Boehner and President Obama - come up more often than any others.

Well, as NPR's Tamara Keith tells us, there's a reason for that.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The Capitol is packed with people who want to be at the center of things, who came to Washington to have their voices heard. But when it comes to fiscal cliff negotiations, virtually all of them are on the outside looking in. Walter Jones is a Republican from North Carolina. As a pack of reporters asked him about the status of talks, he had to answer: he didn't know.

REP. WALTER JONES: You get more information many times than those of us in the conference, and I understand that. That's not a criticism. But there's just not much to tell us.

KEITH: Jones had just left a House Republican conference meeting, where Speaker John Boehner spoke to his troops.

JONES: He's our speaker and he's trying his best to negotiate, but to keep with the principles of the conference.

KEITH: Those principles include a strong opposition to raising taxes - especially tax rates - and an equally strong desire to cut spending. California Republican John Campbell is a member of the House Budget Committee. Just like every other House Republican, other than the speaker, Campbell doesn't have a seat at the negotiating table.

REP. JOHN CAMPBELL: You know, you always worry when someone else is negotiating for something that I'm going to be voting on. And sure, I'm worried that it may be a deal I may not want to or feel comfortable supporting. But I don't know that yet. I don't think there's any indication of that at this point.

KEITH: It's not just rank and file representatives who are left out. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi - the top Democrat in the House - says the president is the Democrats' lead negotiator.

REP. NANCY PELOSI: He knows our views. We trust his judgment. We all share the same values. And again, we trust his leadership on this.

KEITH: Pelosi recently penned an op-ed arguing against raising the Medicare eligibility age. And earlier this week a group of Democrats held a press conference to say it would be a mistake to cut Medicaid, at least in part to remind their negotiator-in-chief of their views.

Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the second highest ranking member of the Democratic leadership team, says these fiscal cliff talks are really all about two men, and he's at peace with that.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: Because I stand behind the president and what he's asking for, I feel comfortable with that. I've also seen the effectiveness and the perfidy of committees. So having two people who can make a decision engaged makes sense.

KEITH: Rarely have so many powerful people been so marginalized. And yet most seem to believe this is the only way.

JOE MINARIK: We're beyond the stage of hearings. We're beyond the stage of rooms where we could have a lot of people participating.

KEITH: Joe Minarik is the senior vice president at the Committee for Economic Development, a non-partisan think tank. And he was involved in the 1986 tax reform. There were many more people at the table back then. But Minarek says the process took years and the deadline this time is just weeks away.

MINAREK: We have to work so quickly that we need to get down to a very small number of people to make this decision. And that's why we have just the president and just the speaker at the table.

KEITH: But in the end, whatever they agree to has to get 218 votes in the House and most likely 60 votes in the Senate. And that's when all those members of Congress will be powerful again.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

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