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Democrats have found themselves suddenly on the defensive on the payroll tax cut — an issue they had dominated early but for which momentum has since shifted to Republicans after they successfully made the Keystone XL pipeline part of the conversation. They also have been helped by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's decision to link it to the appropriations process.
Indeed, the Nevada Democrat and his entire leadership team were summoned to the White House on Wednesday afternoon for a hastily arranged meeting with President Barack Obama to discuss the situation.
Following the meeting — which Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) described as "very nice" — Democratic leaders said they were still no closer to resolving the standoff.
For instance, while Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) told reporters that "the president is still concerned" with some of the policy riders and other aspects of the spending and payroll bills, Reid said "there's a lot of issues we're working through."
Part of the problem, Democrats insist, is the fact that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has thus far been unwilling to let Reid bring the House's payroll tax bill to the floor for a quick vote and all but certain defeat.
With Boehner waiting for the Senate to demonstrate it will not accept the House version before entering into talks on a compromise, Democratic aides insisted McConnell is essentially stalling any progress toward resolving the impasse.
In an apparent attempt to get Republicans back to the negotiating table, Democrats began to signal Wednesday that they may be willing to drop their demand for a tax on those making more than $1 million a year in return for concessions by Republicans. The development came after the Senate leadership meeting at the White House.
The protracted staring contest between Republicans and Democrats — a practice that has become commonplace in the lead-up to holiday breaks or long recesses, particularly when the issue is spending — has further eroded the already battered comity on Capitol Hill.
Reid and McConnell engaged in a particularly terse exchange on the Senate floor Wednesday morning when McConnell blocked Reid's effort to bring the House bill to the floor.
When Reid rejected McConnell's proposal to allow the vote only if he agreed to vote on the omnibus spending bill, the Republican leader attacked Democrats.
"Here we are a few days before Christmas and the silliness continues," McConnell said during his floor exchange with Reid. "If my friend the Majority Leader is so convinced that the House-passed [payroll] bill can't pass the Senate, I would say again, talk to [Boehner] and work out something that can pass both the House and the Senate. Time is wasting."
Reid then fired back, suggesting the partisan rhetoric was more about the 2012 presidential election than about legislating.
"Talk about a diversion. That's what we just heard," Reid responded. "My friend, the Republican leader, has talked from the very beginning of this Congress, his No. 1 goal is to defeat [Obama] for re-election. That's not looking so good."
But by the evening Reid, McConnell and Boehner were meeting privately.