WASHINGTON — Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill inched toward a compromise to avert part of the so-called fiscal cliff but remained unable to close a deal as each side struggled with internal tensions as well as the remaining gap between them.
Lawmakers have been trying to beat a deadline of midnight Monday, when tax rates are scheduled to go up for the vast majority of Americans. But they could continue chasing a deal for days — even until the new Congress is sworn in at noon Thursday. After that, the political dynamics could shift with the entrance of new members.
If Congress fails to act, the combination of new taxes and sharp cuts in defense spending and domestic programs, which also would take effect with the new year, could tip the economy back into recession, economists have warned.
On Sunday, talks hit a standstill early in the day after Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky proposed slowing Social Security cost-of-living increases as part of the spending package. Democrats rejected the idea, and many Republicans quickly disavowed it.
In response to a request from McConnell, the Obama administration assigned Vice President Joe Biden to broker further negotiations.
“I’m willing to get this done, but I need a dance partner,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “The sticking point appears to be a willingness, an interest, or courage to close the deal.”
Biden and McConnell talked by phone throughout the afternoon as the two sides appeared to close in on a potential compromise.
Republicans have said they are willing to raise taxes on wealthier households while stopping the tax increases for most Americans. The two sides have not agreed on an income threshold for the tax increases. Republicans suggested starting about $550,000 in taxable income for couples and $450,000 for single households. The most recent offer from Democrats had set the tax level slightly lower, about $450,000 for couples and $360,000 for singles.
But Republicans were also seeking to preserve inheritance taxes at the current rate of 35%, while Democrats have sought to raise them. Republicans want to keep the automatic spending cuts in place for now, while Democrats suggest easing them. Democrats also want to continue long-term unemployment benefits as part of the year-end package.
Other sticking points remain over adjustments to the rates Medicare pays doctors and fixing the tax code to protect middle-income Americans from the alternative minimum tax, which was designed to prevent tax avoidance by the wealthy. Both provisions involve laws that are not indexed for inflation and have required annual adjustments by Congress.
The closer the two sides edged toward compromise Sunday, the more divisions within their ranks became apparent.
Republican senators, worried they would be blamed for harming seniors, openly revolted once the McConnell proposal to trim Social Security benefits became public.
After a closed-door meeting, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) articulated the public relations challenge the proposal posed his party: “What [Democrats] are saying now is, ‘Republicans want to preserve tax breaks for rich people and give up seniors’ Social Security.’ It should be off the table. And I think most Republicans believe it should be off the table.”
“I’m not a fan,” said retiring Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine). “I don’t think it should be part of it, and I think there are others who shared that view.”
Democrats rejected the proposal. An aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the talks, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) “was taken aback and disappointed” by the idea. “We feel we are further apart than we were 24 hours ago.”
Adjusting the cost of living for recipients of government benefits, including Social Security, had been offered by President Obama in talks with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) when they were negotiating a broader deficit reduction deal. But Democrats have rejected including the idea in the more limited package now under discussion.
At the same time, some Democrats worried that Biden, who has closed several deals before with McConnell, might be too eager to compromise compared with Reid. White House officials have been more worried than many congressional Democrats about the potential economic damage that the tax cuts and spending reductions could cause.
Obama made clear the line of attack that the White House would use against Republican leaders if Congress could not find a resolution.
“They have had trouble saying yes to a number of repeated offers,” Obama said in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” which was recorded Saturday.
“If they can’t do a comprehensive package of smart deficit reductions, let’s at minimum make sure that people’s taxes don’t go up and that 2 million people don’t lose their unemployment insurance.”
The president’s fallback proposal, which would allow tax increases on those with incomes above $250,000, remains an option that could come to a vote Monday. Republicans would probably launch a filibuster to block that bill, which would put them in the politically difficult position of preventing a tax cut for the vast majority of Americans.
The fact that Reid had not scheduled a vote on that measure strongly indicated that he believed negotiations had more room to run.
Meantime, the House began the process of waiving a rule that requires legislation to be posted for three days, opening the possibility of New Year’s Eve votes if the Senate acts.
Boehner convened a closed-door meeting of rank-and-file House Republicans, whose reluctance to support a tax increase has been a crucial issue in previous attempts to reach a deal.
Divisions within the GOP have left Boehner on the sidelines in the final round of talks, and he is expected to bring only part of his majority along for any agreement. Support from House Democrats will play a greater role in the final deal.
As tourists milled about the Capitol on Sunday, some lawmakers appeared embarrassed by the protracted negotiations. Several senators said they were talking among themselves about alternatives should the leaders fail.
“Is this sloppy, is it frustrating, is it enough to make you want to tear your hair out if you’re watching from afar?” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said. “Yeah.”
Kathleen Hennessey in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.