Biden and McConnell negotiate on the edge of the fiscal cliff

With hours to go before the New Year ball drops, Politico reports that Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have the spotlight dance:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Vice President Joe Biden  engaged in furious overnight negotiations to avert the fiscal cliff and made  major progress toward a year-end tax deal, giving sudden hope to high-stakes  talks that had been on the brink of collapse, according to sources familiar with  the discussion.

McConnell and Biden, who served in the Senate together for 23 years, are  closing in on an agreement that would hike tax rates for families who earn more  than $450,000, and individuals who make more than $400,000, according to sources  familiar with talks.

$450k of family income per year as the tax-hike cutoff?  Why, that’s suspiciously close to the deal President Obama was supposedly going to offer Republicans on Friday… but didn’t.  He went into a meeting with congressional leaders surrounded by much hype about last-minute compromises, but merely repeated the same old demands for higher taxes on couples and businesses who make over $250k per year.  The President could have saved us a lot of weekend drama by making the $450k offer himself, instead of leaving it to Joe Biden at the eleventh hour.  Especially since Obama spent Sunday morning boasting of what a practical, non-partisan, non-ideological problem solver he is.

In theory, there’s still time to hold votes and get something done, but a deal presented to the House with just minutes left on the legislative clock is not going to allow much time for sober contemplation, to say nothing of the traditional House vs. Senate amendment tennis match.  Then again, if our government took the radical step of preparing some sort of “budget” in advance, in which it carefully spent roughly as much money as it takes in, the end of the year would be a lot less exciting.

The $450k limit for higher taxes is said to be too high for Democrats and too low for Republicans, which does give it a certain air of compromise.  It appears virtually all other issues, with the possible exception of extending unemployment benefits, have been set aside for later debate.  One idea that has apparently fallen by the wayside is the Republican proposal to change the way Social Security cost-of-living adjustments are calculated.

The automatic “sequestration” spending cuts are not quite off the table yet.  The Democrats want to use money from tax increases to “disable” the sequester, but some Republicans are still under the impression that the point of all this drama is to reduce the deficit somehow.  “The biggest obstacle we face is that President Obama and Majority Leader Reid continue to insist on new taxes that will be used to fund more new spending, not meaningful deficit reduction,” growled Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), who is the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee.

Biden apparently became involved because McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) aren’t talking any more, and President Obama spends his time trashing Republicans on talk shows.  “While the President was taping those discordant remarks yesterday, Senator McConnell was in the office working to bring Republicans and Democrats together on a solution,” a McConnell spokesman told Fox News.  The Washington Times indicates it was McConnell’s idea to get Biden involved.

The possibility of deal emerging from the Senate will depend, in large measure, on whether any Senators decide to insist on 60 votes to pass bill.  Politico quotes Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) saying that “by and large, members here, from I’ve heard, are willing to allow these things to be voted on in a simple majority fashion,” which is a rather heavily qualified expression of optimism.