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Congress to punt political football again rather than tackle problem

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Washington on Monday was poised to do what it does best: invent a half-solution to a full problem while punting the toughest questions for later and setting up more deadline drama.

It's the latest in a string of deals over the past two years that couples small movement on spending with an agreement to revisit the issue soon, which is what led to the "fiscal cliff" in the first place.

The deal lawmakers were trying to finalize Monday night would do the same thing. It would cancel some of the looming automatic spending cuts from the last debt deal, but for only two months, which sets up another fight several months down the road — just as the next debt-ceiling fight kicks in.

Congress' penchant for lurching from deadline to deadline drew the scorn of President Obama, who joked about it even as he took a victory lap at the White House on Monday over the outlines of the latest deal.

"One thing we can count on with respect to this Congress is that if there's even one second left before you have to do what you're supposed to do, they will use that last second," he quipped in a speech at the White House.

The fiscal cliff was set up by a 2010 tax deal that extended all of the Bush-era tax cuts and Mr. Obama's stimulus tax cuts through the end of 2012, coupled with the 2011 debt deal, which set a deadline of this Wednesday to pass spending cuts or set off automatic across-the-board sequesters.

Those spending cuts could have been canceled if the so-called deficit supercommittee succeeded, but it notched yet another failure in what has become a pattern of kicking the big problems down the road.

"We could do a lot better," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, Virginia Democrat, who said blame lies squarely with House Republican leaders.

He said the leaders have shown they cannot strike a deal and keep their troops in line long enough to tackle the biggest issues facing the country.

There is no reason to think that Congress has learned its lesson, he said.

Republicans counter that in each of the previous deadline fights, the GOP-controlled House passed bills to deal with the situation, but the Democratic Senate never did. In the end, solutions were struck behind closed doors by leaders and then offered to the two chambers in an up-or-down vote.

"I feel like I've spent my whole life waiting for the Senate to act," said Rep. Richard B. Nugent, Florida Republican.

Even before they ratified the latest deal, both sides were gearing up for the next fight — on the debt limit.

The Treasury Department says it will run out of borrowing authority around the end of February, and Republicans said they will use that deadline to wrangle changes to Medicare and Social Security from Mr. Obama.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, was calling the next debt fight "Round Two," and said he would not vote for any deal that doesn't include major entitlement reforms.

"Round Two's coming, and we're going to have one hell of a contest about the direction and the vision of this country," he said.

If Congress doesn't raise the debt limit, the government instantly will have to cut about 40 percent of its spending to account for the amount of money it borrows for every dollar it spends.

Round Three isn't far behind the debt fight. Congress didn't pass any of the annual spending bills to keep the government funded in 2013, and the stopgap measure it did pass expires March 31.

Without another extension, the government again would face a government shutdown, just as it did in 2011, when House Republicans and Mr. Obama struggled to pass that year's spending bills.

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