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Senate Leaders to Work Through Weekend to Avoid Fiscal Spending Cuts

After a White House meeting, Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged to work to hammer out a deal before the New Year's witching hour.
 
 
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President Barack Obama delivering a statement in the White House press room on December 28, 2012, about the state of negotiations on avoiding the fiscal sequester.
Photo Credit: WhiteHouse.gov

 
 
 
 

After a White House meeting with congressional leaders of both parties, President Barack Obama appeared in the White House press room to urge lawmakers to vote on a package that would avert the automatic across-the-board spending cuts and tax hikes that are scheduled to go into effect on New Year's Day if the Congress fails to act by December 31. 

The cuts-and-hikes law, known as the sequester, and dubbed the "fiscal cliff" by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernacke, were passed into law last year under Republican pressure in return for a lifting of the debt ceiling that allows the government to borrow enough money to meet its obligations.

Emerging from the meeting, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced their plan to work through Saturday to arrive at a deal that the Senate could take up on Sunday, December 30. Any bill passed by the Senate would then have to see a vote in the House, which has already passed two bills on spending and revenue measures that are unacceptable to Democrats and to the president.

While the president wants to raise income taxes on households earning more than $250,000 per year, the bill passed by the House in August would maintain the Bush-era tax cuts on all Americans, including the wealthiest. The House also passed a package of spending cuts intended to replace the sequester cuts, including repealing sections of Obamacare, including the funding of state-based exchanges for the purchase of affordable individual health insurance policies. Other cuts target Medicaid and the Child Health Insurance Program, all of them unacceptable to the White House. The bill, H.R. 6684, which passed the Republican-led House on December 19, is clearly an ideological statement, and not a piece of legislation that would stand a chance of passage in the Democratic-held Senate.

Yet, because the House passed these bills, Speaker John Boehner is insisting the Senate take up the job of hammering out a workable deal. The House is also slated to vote on Sunday on any bill that Reid may bring to the Senate floor.

Appearing in the White House press room on Friday afternoon (video below), President Barack Obama demanded that congressional leaders bring a proposal, regardless of its prospects for passage, to the Senate floor for an up-or-down vote.

"I believe such a proposal could pass both houses with bipartisan majorities," Obama said, "as long as those leaders allow it to actually come to a vote. If members of the Senate or the House want to vote 'no,' they can -- but we should let everybody vote. That is the way this is supposed to work...So if we don't see an agreement between the two leaders in the Senate, I expect a bill to go on the floor -- and I've asked Sen. Reid to do this -- put a bill on the floor that makes sure that taxes on middle class families don't go up, that unemployment insurance is still available for 2 million people, and that lays the groundwork then for additional deficit reduction and economic growth steps that we can take in the new year."

According to reports, Obama rolled back an offer he previously made to Boehner when seeking a deal with the speaker to allow the Bush-era tax cuts to remain in effect for those earning less than $400,000, an income far higher than the $250,000 threshold Democrats have sought, and to which the president is said to have recommitted.

That move is winning the president guarded praise from progressives. "It would be good news if the Senate passed President Obama's fallback plan -- raise tax rates on those making over $250,000, extend unemployment benefits for millions of people, and give the Republicans none of their wildly-unpopular demands," said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in a written statement. "Democrats have all of the leverage and the public on their side if they stand on principle."

Obama seems to be getting that message, though the proof will ultimately be any bill he signs into law this weekend.

"The American people are watching what we do here," Obama told the Washington press corps. "Obviously, their patience is already running thin. This is deja vu all over again. America wonders why it is that in this town, for some reason, ya can't get stuff done in an organized timetable. Everything always has to wait until the last minute. Well, we're now at the last minute. The American people are not going to have any patience for a politically self-inflicted wound to our economy -- not right now." 

 

Adele M. Stan is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., who specializes in covering the intersection of religion and politics. She is RH Reality Check's senior Washington correspondent.

 
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