‘Fiscal cliff’ pessimism grows in Congress

WASHINGTON — Senators bickered Sunday over who’s to blame for lurching the country toward a year-end “fiscal cliff,” bemoaning the lack of a deal days before the deadline but bridging no differences in the debate.

With the collapse Thursday of House Speaker John Boehner’s plan to allow tax rates to rise on million-dollar-plus incomes, Sen. Joe Lieberman said “it’s the first time that I feel it’s more likely we’ll go over the cliff than not,” meaning that higher taxes for most Americans and painful federal agency budget cuts would be in line to go ahead.

“If we allow that to happen it will be the most colossal consequential act of congressional irresponsibility in a long time, maybe ever in American history because of the impact it’ll have on almost every American,” said Lieberman, a Connecticut independent.

Wyoming Sen. Jon Barrasso, a member of the GOP leadership, predicted that the new year would come without an agreement, and he faulted the White House.

“I believe the president is eager to go over the cliff for political purposes. He senses a victory at the bottom of the cliff,” he said.

Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, was incredulous at Barrasso’s assertion that `there is only one person that can provide the leadership” on such a matter vital to the nation’s interests.

“There are 535 of us that can provide leadership. There are 435 in the House, 100 in the Senate and there is the president, all of us have a responsibility here,” he said. “And, you know what is happening? What is happening is the same old tired blame game. He said/she said. I think the American people are tired of it. What they want to hear is what is the solution?”

No solution seemed any nearer, with Obama and Congress on a short holiday break. Congress is expected to be back at work Thursday and Obama in the White House after a few days in Hawaii.

“It is time to get back to the table,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., “And I hope if anyone sees these representatives from the House in line shopping or getting their Christmas turkey, they wish them a merry Christmas, they’re civil, and then say go back to the table, not your own table, the table in Washington.”

Predicted Lieberman: “We’re going to spend New Year’s Eve here I believe.”

Obama already has scaled back his ambitions for a sweeping budget bargain. Before leaving the capital on Friday, he called for a limited measure that extend George W. Bush-era tax cuts for most people and stave off federal spending cuts. The president also urged Congress to extend jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed that would otherwise be cut off for 2 million people at the end of the year.

“The truth of the matter is, if we do fall off the cliff after the president is inaugurated, he’ll come back, propose just what he proposed … in leaving Washington and we’ll end up adopting it, but why should we put the markets in such turmoil and the people misunderstanding or lack of confidence,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. “Why not go ahead and act now?

Obama’s announcement late Friday suggested that a smaller deal may rest in the Senate, given the failure of Boehner’s option in the House.

“The ball is now clearly with the Senate,” said Lieberman.

He said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky “have the ability to put this together again and pass something. It won’t be a big, grand bargain to take care of the total debt, but they can do some things that will avoid the worst consequences going over the fiscal cliff.”

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison said she expects “it is going to be a patch because in four days we can’t solve everything.”

It was only a week ago when news emerged that Obama and Boehner had significantly narrowed their differences. Both were offering a cut in taxes for most Americans, an increase for a relative few and cuts of roughly $1 trillion in spending over a year. Also included was a scaling back of future cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients — a concession on the president’s part as much as agreeing to higher tax rates was for the speaker.

Lieberman was on CNN’s “State of the Union,” while Barrasso and Conrad appeared on “Fox News Sunday.” Klobuchar and Isakson were on “Fox News Sunday,” while Hutchison was on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

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