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Cliff Negotiators Continue Circling Each Other

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
As the Senate reconvened, Reid, above, needled Boehner for failing to secure the votes for a backup tax cut plan last week and doubled down on his position that the House pass the Senate’s bill.

McConnell was not present on the floor during or immediately after Reid’s remarks.

Reid’s floor remarks were the first public statements made by a key figure in the talks since Obama delivered a brief address Dec. 21 at the White House before departing for Hawaii. Obama also met with Reid that day, when they discussed his most recent offer to Republicans: an extension of current tax rates for income below $250,000, an extension of unemployment insurance benefits and a delay in the sequester, or scheduled spending cuts.

On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner sent letters to congressional leaders informing them the government would hit its debt limit Dec. 31 and that he would begin to take “extraordinary measures” to continue to pay debts and obligations the government already owes.

When Obama made his public comments Dec. 21, he did not speak about whether an agreement would include an increase in the country’s borrowing capacity and did not mention the terms “debt limit” or “debt ceiling” in his remarks.

During the last lame-duck session, the White House and congressional Democrats did not take the GOP’s threats on the debt limit seriously, a political miscalculation that in many ways helped create the fiscal cliff by necessitating a budget agreement in 2011 that included both immediate and delayed cuts in the form of the sequester, one of the other key pieces of the cliff.

At the end of November, Geithner, on behalf of the White House, asked congressional leaders for a change in how the debt limit is extended, putting the onus on Congress to disapprove of an extension. Republican leaders scoffed.

Boehner has vowed to seek cuts commensurate to the amount the debt limit is increased and the House GOP has clung to the idea that it can use the debt ceiling in early 2013 to wrangle more spending concessions from Democrats.

The details of the most recent offerings from Obama, at least the details that have been made public, have not included proposals on how to deal with the looming need to raise the debt ceiling. Democrats currently hold a position of leverage in the overall talks, especially after Boehner failed last week to move a standalone tax bill that would have raised rates on millionaires, and they might not be willing to concede it at this point for a deal that leaves them in a bind by February or March, when the Treasury runs out of options on fudging with the debt limit.

Senate aides say they’ve been pushing for a debt limit increase for weeks now, but most of the public debate and focus has been on the expiring tax breaks and the bill they currently are pushing House Republicans to take up only deals with taxes.

On the issue of the looming tax increases, House Republicans and Senate Democrats exchanged statements Wednesday in the sort of he-said-she-said that has become the trademark of the latest iteration of congressional budget debates. First, House Republican leaders issued a joint statement targeted at Senate Democrats, followed shortly by a statement from a Reid spokesman.

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