While voters may think they'll be casting their vote on Nov. 6 for Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, lawmakers are starting to acknowledge that the electorate will also decide how Congress should resolve the fiscal cliff.
While leaders still bluster publicly about holding the line during the lame-duck session even if they lose, they are increasingly eyeing the elections as the clarifying event to break the logjam over taxes and spending that has blocked a bipartisan debt deal for the past two years.
Democrats for months have been ratcheting up their resolve on the fiscal cliff and believe that Republicans will finally bend if President Barack Obama is elected. And they pointed to a quote from conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) to that effect that appeared in a Bloomberg story last week.
"We might as well cut a deal," DeMint said of what would happen if Obama wins. "If Republicans want to maintain the defense, we're going to have to give tax increases to Obama."
"When Jim DeMint is suddenly open to revenues, you know the tide is turning," a grinning Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thursday.
Of course, DeMint's office quickly walked back the quote.
"Senator DeMint strongly opposes tax hikes that destroy jobs. He was simply pointing out that President Obama won't agree to anything that doesn't include tax increases, which is one of the biggest reasons he should be defeated this November," spokesman Wesley Denton said. "And that's also why Senator DeMint opposes a lame-duck session. We shouldn't have politicians cut deals for higher taxes after they're kicked out of office. We need a new president and a new Congress address these issues next year."
But DeMint isn't alone in acknowledging the reality that Obama will be able to force through a tax increase.
Other Republicans, particularly in the Senate, have been meeting for months with Democratic counterparts in hopes of breaking the stalemate, although everyone has acknowledged that a deal simply isn't going to happen until voters speak.
Schumer noted last week that on Wednesday alone he attended four meetings on the fiscal cliff, some of which were bipartisan. He said the discussions would continue while Congress is on recess for the next month and a half. Other Senators on the Finance Committee also held regular meetings to discuss the options, and the administration has opened talks with top Republicans, including a meeting last week between Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.).
Senators including John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) have openly expressed a willingness to consider new revenue as part of a year-end deal to block defense cuts and secure entitlement reforms.