Republicans and Democrats returned to Capitol Hill on Tuesday pledging to try to reach common ground — but as each side reinforced its pre-election battle lines, last week's results appear to have shifted little other than the rhetoric.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, opened the Senate's lame-duck session pleading for the chance to rescue the 112th Congress from being the most lethargic on record.
He said the looming "fiscal cliff" depends on better cooperation. In his opening bid, he told Republicans in the House to quickly pass tax legislation that would mean a rate increase for the wealthy, but keep rates low for everyone else.
But Republicans have rejected that plan repeatedly, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, instead said it was up to President Obama to make overtures to Republicans now that he has secured election to a second term.
"It's the president's move," Mr. McConnell said flatly.
The White House, though, was in no mood to break from its pre-election posture. Press secretary Jay Carney said Mr. Obama still will veto any bill that doesn't include a tax-rate increase on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, and shot down other proposals, such as cutting out loopholes but not raising the rates themselves, as "hypotheticals."
"What I can tell you is that the president will not sign a bill that extends tax cuts for the top 2 percent with an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts," Mr. Carney said.
Congress had been in recess for most of the past two months, and lawmakers watched with bemusement as their colleagues dug in again.
"People are stuck in suspended animation," said Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat who is retiring at the end of this year. "My hope is that as everybody adjusts to the outcome of the election and looks to their positions that maybe then action will occur. But if it doesn't, then this country is stuck in neutral. But the problem with being stuck is neutral is that it is actually reverse."
Mr. Nelson said he doesn't want to talk about raising more tax revenues until he has seen more spending cuts put on the table.
Republicans say they are willing to break with their past stance and allow the government to collect more revenue -- though for now, they don't appear to be talking about new direct money from higher taxes.
Instead, they propose a streamlined tax code, with lower rates and fewer deductions, which they say will expand the economy. With a better economy, they say, the government can take in more money.
However, budget analysts have said the hole is so deep that the government cannot grow its way out of the problem, and will need either deep spending cuts, significant tax increases or a combination of the two in order to bring the deficit to manageable levels.
All sides have drawn some lines.
Mr. Obama and Democrats have said they need to see tax rates rise, while Republicans have said entitlement programs must face spending cuts.
But both sides are also under enormous pressure to resist each other's demands. On Tuesday, Mr. Obama met with liberal leaders at the White House and they urged him to reject any deal that would cut Social Security or Medicare.
"The truth is America does not face an 'entitlement crisis.' We should not be cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits to put our fiscal house in order," said Max Richtman, president of the National Committee to Protect Social Security & Medicare.
The so-called fiscal cliff hits early next year. The Bush-era tax cuts expire Jan. 1, and $110 billion in automatic spending cuts take effect Jan. 2 as a result of last year's debt deal. The tax increases would apply across the board, while the spending cuts would be divided equally between defense and domestic appropriations.
Together, they would plunge the economy into a short but sharp recession — though the tax increases and spending cuts also would reduce the budget deficit dramatically in 2013, and would produce a stronger economy by the end of the decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Some Democrats have suggested that their party should let the fiscal cliff hit and then negotiate from a position of strength when Democrats get additional members early next year. They gained seats last week in both chambers, though they will hold a majority only in the Senate.
But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, flatly rejected that Tuesday.
"I want you to be disabused of any notion that there's any widespread thought that it would be a good thing for our country for us to go over the cliff," she told reporters.
Getting there, however, will take a deal — which has been elusive for the past 18 months.
Mr. Obama has invited congressional leaders to the White House on Friday to start negotiations anew.
But signs of calcification already are setting in.
In one ominous sign, the Senate picked up right where it left off in September, fighting over a bill to open more federal lands to fishing and hunting.
Mr. Reid used procedural tactics to lock out Republican amendments, saying the GOP is threatening to delay the bill, as it did with many of Democrats' priorities over the past two years.
"I can't imagine why we're still fighting the battles of the last election," he said.
But Republicans say Mr. Reid is pushing a partisan agenda and in restricting amendments he is refusing to allow the freewheeling debate the Senate usually enjoys.
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