'Fiscal cliff' deal proves elusive
The Republican-controlled House pushed ahead Thursday with a bill that would raise taxes on Americans earning over $1 million a year as hopes faded for a pre-Christmas deal between President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said lawmakers would return to the Capitol on the Thursday after the holiday as a grand bargain to avoid the automatic tax hikes and spending cuts proved elusive.
Across the Capitol, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican, said the Republican Party has the votes for a bill, dubbed "Plan B" by Boehner, aimed at upping the year-end pressure on Capitol Hill Democrats and Obama.
"We, as Republicans, have taken concrete actions to avoid the fiscal cliff," Cantor insisted at a news conference. He expressed confidence the Republican leadership will have enough votes to pass the bill.
But the legislation looked to be a dead letter in the Senate and earned a White House veto threat.
White House spokesman Jay Carney called the Republican "Plan B" bill a "multi-day exercise in futility."
Close to a deal on major issues
On paper, the two sides are relatively close to an agreement on major issues, each having offered concessions in an intensive round of talks that began late last week.
But political considerations are substantial, particularly for Republicans.
After two decades of resolutely opposing any tax increases, Boehner is seeking votes from fellow Republicans for legislation that tacitly lets rates rise on million-dollar income tax filers. The measure would raise revenue by slightly more than $300 billion over a decade than if all of the Bush-era tax cuts remained in effect.
Boehner won a letter of cramped support from anti-tax activist Grover Norquist during the day. Norquist's organization, Americans For Tax Reform, issued a statement saying it will not consider a vote for the bill a violation of a no-tax-increase pledge that many Republicans have signed.
The talks have stalled even though Obama and Boehner have each made concessions that would seem to bring them to the brink of agreement. Obama is now seeking $1.2 trillion in higher tax revenue, down from the $1.6 trillion he initially sought. He also has softened his demand for higher tax rates on household incomes so they would apply to incomes over $400,000 instead of the $250,000 he cited during his successful campaign for a new term.
He also has offered more than $800 billion in spending cuts over a decade, half of it from Medicare and Medicaid, $200 million from farm and other benefit programs, $100 billion from defence and $100 billion from a broad swath of government accounts ranging from parks to transportation to education.
In a key concession to Republicans, the president also has agreed to slow the rise in cost-of-living increases in Social Security and other benefit programs, at a savings estimated at about $130 billion over a decade.
By contrast, Boehner's most recent offer allowed for $1 trillion in higher taxes over a decade, with higher rates for annual incomes over $1 million. His latest offer seeks about $1 trillion in spending cuts.