Edging closer to the ‘fiscal cliff’: Obama, Boehner mum after talks

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Last year, they tussled over the fiscal year 2011 spending bill before striking a last-minute deal to avert a government shutdown. Later that summer, they entered into negotiations to try to prevent the federal government from breaking the debt limit, and with an assist from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, they struck a deal that raised the debt ceiling while calling for future spending cuts.

The stakes are arguably higher this time.

Unless the two men hash out a deal that can pass Congress, taxpayers will be slapped with a more than $400 billion bill from the expiration of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts on Jan. 1.

On Jan. 2, $110 billion in automatic spending cuts kick in — one of the conditions of the debt deal that Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner hashed out last year.

Rank-and-file lawmakers aren’t staying idle during the top-level negotiations. They are holding news conferences and issuing press releases aimed at signaling to negotiators what sort of deal will fly on Capitol Hill.

More than 80 House Democrats sent a letter to Mr. Obama on Thursday and urged him — “in the strongest possible terms” — to block any deal that involves raising the eligibility age for Medicare. Another lawmaker this week called on negotiators to make sure that tax reform is part of a final deal and a bipartisan group of House lawmakers demanded that military spending stays on the chopping block.

Members of Congress also are wondering whether they will be home for Christmas or spending another night waiting in the nation’s Capitol for negotiators to send them a proposal.

The situation is generating mixed emotions inside the halls of Congress, where one aide to a Democratic senator joked that the lawmaker’s face was pressed against the glass, trying to catch a glimpse of what was being discussed.

Mr. Sessions, though, was in no joking mood. He said the closed-door meetings are helping Mr. Obama win the public relations battle.

Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Rand Paul of Kentucky agreed that the secret meetings are hurting their party, saying the deficit-reduction and tax talks should go through the regular legislative process.

“I think there needs to be a big debate because I think we as a party need to stand for what we’ve always stood for, which is limited government, and that you stimulate the economy by lowering taxes. I think it is a mistake and we lose a lot of what we stand for if behind closed doors we are offering to raise taxes,” said Mr. Paul, a tea party favorite. “I have a feeling it is going to be this typical way Washington always works: raise taxes now, for promises of spending cuts later that will never come.”

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