The Senate will not vote tonight on a "fiscal cliff" deal, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said early Sunday evening, adding that he hopes to have more announcements when the session reconvenes at 11 a.m. Monday.
Reid said negotiations will continue, but the acknowledgement that they will not strike a deal in time for the Senate to vote tonight comes just over an hour after Senate Republicans said they were dropping a sticking point that Democrats said today was a "major setback" in negotiations to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff" by Jan. 1.
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, told the Wall Street Journal that the most recent offers from the two parties are separated by about $100,000; Democrats propose raising taxes on couples whose incomes exceed $450,000, and Republicans want to extend the Bush-era tax cuts on couples whose incomes are less than $550,000. Durbin said the only new spending in the Democratic offer would be extensions of expanded jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed, and of a current law which allows companies to easily write off equipment investments.
Exiting a conference meeting this afternoon, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, told CBS News that Republicans would not be pursuing their proposed Social Security cut called "chained" consumer price index (CPI). The proposal, which would measure inflation at a different rate and result in lower Social Security payments for recipients, was derided by Reid today as being "a major setback" at the negotiating table, according to a Democratic source with knowledge of the talks.
McCain said Republicans had to drop the measure because it looked as if they were fighting for tax cuts for the wealthy, at the expense of Social Security recipients. "We cannot win that argument," he said. Cornyn added that Republicans knew all along it wouldn't make it into the final deal - "When you negotiate, you start big," he said.
Democrats had attacked the idea as being a "poison pill" - a non-starter - and said they wouldn't have the votes in their caucus for a plan that includes "chained" CPI.
During brief remarks on the Senate floor this afternoon, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said his office submitted the offer Saturday at 7:10 p.m. ET, and "offered to work through the night to find common ground." Reid said he'd respond by 10 a.m. today, despite the "obvious time crunch," McConnell said, but added, "it's now 2 p.m. and we've yet to receive a response to our good-faith offer."
McConnell said he also placed a call to Vice President Joe Biden "to see if he could help jump start the negotiations on his side. ...The vice president and I have worked together on solutions before, and I believe we can again." During the Republican conference meeting this afternoon, McConnell excused himself briefly to take a call from the vice president.
"We all know that we're running out of time," McConnell said. "I'm willing to get this done, but I need a dance partner."
Immediately following McConnell's remarks, Reid took the podium to announce, "At this stage, we're not able to make a counter-offer. ...The Republican leader has told me that, and he's just said here, that he's working with the vice president," Reid continued. "I wish them well."
Twenty-five minutes later, Reid spoke again, saying that while there are "still serious differences" between Republicans' and Democrats' proposals, "we've made a lot of progress. I appreciate very much Sen. McConnell's good-faith efforts, and I'm confident that he feels the same way about me."
Still, Reid said, "The one thing I do want to mention is that we're not gonna have any Social Security cuts. At this stage, that just doesn't seem appropriate.
"We're open to discussion about entitlement reforms, but we're going to have to take it in a different direction," he continued. "We're willing to make difficult concessions as part of a balanced, comprehensive agreement. But we'll not agree to cut Social Security benefits as part of a smaller, short-term agreement, especially if that agreement gives more handouts to the rich."
Reid advised his fellow senators to "hang loose" in the event that a deal is reached and a vote comes up later this evening.
"At some point in the negotiating process, it appears that there are things that stop us from moving forward," he said. "I hope we're not there, but we're getting real close. And that's why I still hold out hope that we can get something done. But I'm not overly optimistic, but I am cautiously optimistic that we can get something done."
Meanwhile, during his prayer to open the Senate this afternoon, the Senate's chaplain appealed to a higher power to assist in the "fiscal cliff" fight.
"Let us feel your presence today on Capitol Hill," said Senate Chaplain Barry Black. "Look with favor on our nation and save us from self-inflicted wounds."
Following a brief recess for Christmas, members of Congress returned to Washington on Thursday, scrambling to patch together even a makeshift bridge across the "cliff" at year's end, when a series of tax hikes and spending cuts is scheduled to go into effect, potentially hurling the U.S. economy into a dangerous recession.