The Capitol building in Washington. (Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg )
WASHINGTON -- The prayers that open Congress each workday often reflect earthly affairs in Washington. On Monday, as "fiscal cliff" talks continued, they were not uplifting.
"Make them willing to do what is painful in the short term to avoid even greater pain in the long term," Barry C. Black, the Senate chaplain and a retired Navy rear admiral, intoned as the chamber opened for business. "Give them confidence that you will protect them in the future even as you have sustained them in the past."
Lawmakers returned to Washington as President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner continued negotiations to swerve around the so-called fiscal cliff of tax hikes and spending cuts in the new year. The president and congressional Republicans remain far apart, but the silence coming from the White House and the speaker’s office after a meeting Sunday between the two principal negotiators was seen by many observers as a breakthrough of sorts. The top-level talks provided some optimism that a deal could be forming.
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With just a few weeks before the year-end deadline, the two sides have little time remaining to craft a compromise. Existing tax rates for virtually all Americans expire Dec. 31, which would cause an average $2,200 tax hike in the new year if no agreement is reached. Massive automatic federal spending cuts would begin days later.
Obama wants to extend existing tax rates for all but those at the top-2% income level, but Republicans are pushing to continue lower tax rates for all, including couples earning more than $250,000 a year, or singles bringing in $200,000 a year. Republicans also want spending reductions in popular safety-net programs, including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, in exchange for any new tax revenue.
Several key Republicans have said their party should take the deal Obama is offering to maintain the lower- and middle-class tax rates on 98% of Americans, while shifting the debate to spending cuts. Boehner has not yet indicated that he is willing to make that move.
Foggy conditions in Washington on Monday morning prompted the Senate to postpone the day's votes. The House is not expected to return for votes until Tuesday.
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