WASHINGTON – Possible deals for fixing the U.S. budget are getting smaller and smaller in scope.
Congress returns Thursday amid calls for action in the Senate, five days before a deadline that would trigger more than $600 billion in tax increases and spending cuts that could cause a U.S. recession.
The politics of progress in that chamber are easier than in the Republican-controlled House, which balked last week at Speaker John Boehner’s plan for tax increases only on those with income above $1 million. Still, the House would have to sign off on any Senate plan.
Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and President Barack Obama have been unable to agree on the tax-rate increase on top earners Obama wants or the cuts to entitlement programs that Boehner sought, complicating the chances of getting a package done.
“At this point, all they’re looking for is a fig leaf,” said Stan Collender, a former staff member of the House Ways and Means Committee and the House and Senate Budget committees who is now at Qorvis Communications in Washington. “There’s no grand bargain. There never was.”
The Senate is run by Democrats, and some Republican members, including Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, have said that they would favor a small deal on parts of what the president has sought to avoid raising taxes on the less affluent.
The trouble is that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, need to come up with something that also can get through the House, which has balked at any tax increases.
Senate Republicans don’t want to be on the record supporting higher taxes unless they know the House also would pass it.
“There’s still a chance for them to get a deal,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist who once served as a spokesman for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. “It grows more unlikely by the day, and there’s not a lot of days left.”
Obama and Boehner haven’t spoken since the president flew to Hawaii on Dec. 21, according to a Republican aide who requested anonymity when discussing the negotiations. Obama planned to return to Washington Wednesday night while his family remains in Hawaii, the White House said Tuesday.
The House will hold a pro-forma session Thursday. House leaders told rank-and-file lawmakers that they would receive a 48-hour notice before being called back to Washington. Leaders haven’t yet given that notice and are still discussing the schedule, according to a leadership aide who requested anonymity.