As the city, the markets and the world weigh in on a possible "fiscal cliff" deal, it's increasingly clear that only two opinions will count in the end.
Lawmakers have been reduced to bystanders as they wait to see whether President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner can produce a deal. The two men met again Thursday evening for their second face-to-face negotiation in five days.
Aides emerged after the 50-minute meeting to announce that no details would be released beyond saying the meeting was "frank" and that "lines of communication remain open."
"We are pretty much completely in the dark," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, adding that he fears having a grand bargain worked out behind closed doors then dropped onto Congress in a take-it-or-leave-it vote.
But others shrugged at the situation, saying this is the way it has to be.
"I think it is understandable that the speaker is the lead on this," said Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican.
On the other side of the Capitol, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican, said he doesn't expect the president to have to negotiate with all 435 members of the House.
"If he is going to have one, I would just as soon that he would have a discussion with me, but we know that is not going to happen. So [Mr. Boehner] is our leader, we support him," Mr. Chaffetz said.
Rep. Peter Welch, Vermont Democrat, said the cryptic discussions are "a practical reality."
"If you are having delicate negotiations as the president and the speaker are, if every word and whisper is leaked out, it just creates a firestorm and retards rather than facilitates progress," Mr. Welch said. "So, it is just the way it has got to be."
There are currently 533 sworn members of Congress, but aside from Mr. Boehner and Mr. Obama and their top lieutenants, few even know what is really on the table in the conversations.
The Rev. Pat Conroy, the House chaplain, seemed to underscore the stakes riding on those few when he opened Thursday's session with a prayer saying that upon their shoulders rested "the most important negotiations of our time."
Mr. Boehner has relented on key conservative principles, agreeing to raise revenue by at least $800 billion — but hasn't laid out specifics other than to say it should come from ending loopholes and deductions, not from raising marginal income-tax rates on the wealthy or anyone else.
Mr. Obama insists that rates go up, and the White House says negotiations can't proceed until Republicans agree.
The two are no strangers to trying to negotiate grand bargains.
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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