'Fiscal cliff': Finger-pointing furiously, Congress slouches toward deadline

Speaker Boehner, who called the House back into session Sunday evening, said Thursday it was up to the Senate to act, while majority leader Reid spoke on the Senate floor of a 'dysfunctional' GOP caucus.

Evan Vucci/AP
House Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer of Md. gestures during a news conference in Washington, Capitol Hill, Thursday, where he urged House Republicans to end the pro forma session and call the House back into legislative session to negotiate a solution to the fiscal cliff.

In a last bid to avert the "fiscal cliff," House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio is calling the House back into session for votes on Sunday evening, but without a sign from either side of the aisle of a new offer that might make a breakthrough possible before the Jan. 1 deadline.

Instead, the leadership of both houses of Congress engaged in a flurry of finger-pointing Thursday, with each saying the other was to blame for the likelihood of the deadline being missed to avoid the fiscal cliff of tax hikes and spending cuts.

It's all up to the Senate, Mr. Boehner told House Republicans in a conference call in the afternoon, in a reprise of his comments after failing to get necessary party support last week for his own "Plan B" fallback maneuver while negotiating with President Obama. The House acted back in August to stop all the tax-rate increases and replace mandated spending cuts, or the sequester, with "responsible spending cuts," he reiterated. "These bills await action by the Senate."

"Once this has occurred, the House will then consider whether to accept the bills as amended, or to send them back to the Senate with additional amendments," he added. "The House will take this action on whatever the Senate can pass – but the Senate must act."

Meanwhile, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who had called the Senate back into session on Thursday, blasted Boehner and a "dysfunctional Republican caucus" for the deadlock.

“It’s obvious what’s going on. He’s waiting until Jan. 3 to get reelected to speaker, because he has so many people over there that won’t follow what he wants,” he said in a floor speech opening the Senate.

The way to avert the fiscal cliff is for the House to pass a bill that extends the Bush tax cuts for all but those families earning more than $250,000 in income, he added. The bill passed the Senate last July with no Republican votes.

So, with just five days to go before some $600 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts take hold, congressional leaders are hunkering down in bargaining positions back to where they were before the August break. But at the same time, leaders on both sides of the aisle say that there is flexibility in the system to come to terms even after the Jan. 1 deadline expires.

One approach is for Congress to pass a stopgap measure akin to a “continuing resolution,” which is used to continue spending at current levels until Congress can complete work on a new spending bill, said House minority whip Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland, after a briefing with reporters on Thursday.

If Congress was close to a deal but ran out of time to draft the legislative language needed to implement it, a 10-day extension could avert the cliff, he said. If Boehner allowed a floor vote on extending all the Bush tax cuts except for those over $250,000, “I think it would pass,” he said.

Another might be for President Obama to direct the Treasury to delay tax hikes unilaterally, until a deal is finalized, a strategy President George H.W. Bush used for a limited period of time when a tax deal with Congress appeared imminent.

On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner made a similar proposal when he told Congress that the nation would run up against its debt ceiling on Dec. 31, but that he would use “exceptional measures” to avoid the US breaching its borrowing limits for at least another month.

“The message from Geithner is that the world is not going to end on New Year’s eve, that there’s some flexibility in the system,” says Ross Baker, a congressional expert at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N. J.

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