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Senate fiscal cliff deal pending; House fate uncertain

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WASHINGTON -- "Happy New Year!" Vice President Joe Biden said cheerfully as he arrived at the Capitol to huddle with Senate Democrats, with less than three hours to go before the fiscal cliff deadline.

Biden negotiated a tentative deal with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that will raise tax rates on household incomes of $450,000, keep tax breaks for those making less than that and extend unemployment benefits while at the same time kick decisions over spending cuts down the road a bit.

While President Barack Obama got the wealthy to pay more -- it was not at the $250,000 household income level he called for during the campaign. But during these weeks of negotiations Obama said he could go higher.

The two biggest sticking points were over the estate tax and the automatic spending cuts due to sock the Pentagon and other domestic programs starting on Tuesday with the full impact spread over years.

Republicans compromised by agreeing to delay those automatic cuts for two months. Democrats yielded on the estate tax rates.

The vice president rushed to the Capitol for the meeting because some Democrats were worried he gave up too much ground.

"Don't you all enjoy being here New Year's Eve?" Biden said to the throng of reporters spending New Year's Eve covering the unfolding fiscal cliff drama in the Capitol.

Biden tossed out the chipper greeting at 9:18 p.m. Eastern time as he went into a meeting that lasted for about 45 minutes.

Even if the Senate voted before midnight Congress is going over the fiscal cliff.

The GOP controlled House -- waiting for the Senate to act first -- returns to work on Tuesday, adjourning Monday when it was obvious the Senate vote would be coming late.

While lawmakers missed their self-imposed deadline, any deep damage to the economy will be minimal if the House and Senate reach a tax and budget deal before the new Congress is sworn in at noon Thursday.

McConnell implored Biden on Sunday to take over direct negotiations, with McConnell preferring his former Senate colleague to Senate Minority Harry Reid (D-Nev.), thinking, I was told by an informed observer, that he could get a better deal.

"I needed a dance partner, so I reached out to the vice president in an effort to get things done," an upbeat McConnell said from the Senate floor on Monday. "And I'm happy to report that the effort has been a successful one."

The House is another matter. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has officially kept a distance from the Senate dealings. "This is all about McConnell and the Democrats," Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck told me earlier Monday.

The House is poised to deal with the Senate legislation with expedited procedures. But it's not clear at all that House Republicans will go along with the Senate.

"We made one commitment," Buck reminded me. "Once the Senate passes something, then we will take action."

None of this last-minute stuff speaks well of Congress. This historic New Year's Eve session is not a proud night under the dome.

I asked Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) what she thought of this deadline wrangling as she entered the meeting with Biden.

"I'm speechless," she said. "We could have done this a long time ago."

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on December 31, 2012 11:21 PM.

Trouble from the left: MoveOn nixes Obama fiscal cliff deal was the previous entry in this blog.

President Obama official schedule and guidance, Jan.1, 2013 is the next entry in this blog.

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