Fiscal cliff negotiations: A slow-motion car wreck?

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio. Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Washington’s fiscal cliff negotiations have taken on the feel of a slow-motion car wreck that could be avoided if only someone would take the wheel.

But instead, President Obama and congressional leaders in both parties spent Thursday engaged in what amounted to a staring contest where neither side blinked.

House Republicans said it was Senate Democrats turn to try to pass a solution. Nuh-uh, answered Senate Dems, insisting that the House GOP either cut a deal with the president or take up their Senate bill. And the president? Well, he didn’t say much of anything today.

So as it becomes increasingly likely that the nation will lurch off the fiscal cliff, congressional leaders played the blame game, seeking a PR advantage ahead of the hundreds of billions of dollars in automatic tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts that commence in less than a week.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took to the floor to say it looks like the country’s headed over the fiscal cliff, pointing the finger at Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who allowed his members to stay home instead of returning to Washington to work on a solution. He called on Boehner to hold a vote on a Senate-passed bill that would extend the Bush-era tax cuts for everyone making under $250,000 a year.

For his part, Boehner held a conference call with GOP lawmakers Thursday and his private message echoed his public one -- he called on Reid to pass House legislation to extend the tax cuts and avoid the spending cuts. And GOP leaders told their members to return to the Capitol on Sunday, a tacit acknowledgement that an empty House chamber did not help their public image.

“The House will take this action on whatever the Senate can pass – but the Senate must act,” Boehner told Republicans, according to a source on the call.

He also told members that his most recent call with Obama was brief and unsubstantial, a GOP aide familiar with the call said.

After Boehner failed last week to pass his plan to extend tax cuts for everyone but millionaires, Republicans have punted to the Senate in an effort to deflect some of the blame for the stalled out negotiations.

But so far Senate Democrats have failed to act. With the wind of public opinion at their back (most polls show the majority of Americans will blame Republicans if the country goes off the fiscal cliff), Democrats aren’t budging until they have a plan that has Republican backing.

And that prospect isn’t looking particularly sunny since Reid didn’t talk with Boehner or McConnell over the holiday, according to a Senate Democratic aide. And a late Thursday afternoon meeting between the two men was not about the fiscal cliff, another aide said.

Democrats are hesitant to put up a plan on the Senate floor without GOP support because they worry Republicans would sink the last, best hope for a deal in order to score political points on a Democratic failure.

The best chance for a cliff-averting deal seems to lay with Reid and McConnell. If the two leaders can agree to bring a plan to the floor, that legislation just might make it to the president’s desk.

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