Congress gropes for fiscal cliff roadmap

As Senators left town on Friday afternoon for a Christmas break, there was no concrete answer from either party on how the tax and budget impasse known as the fiscal cliff would be solved before the end of the year.

“I have no idea what ought to happen,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), as he was pursued out the door of the Capitol by reporters.

“People don’t know,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who let out a huge laugh when I asked him the simple question of what might happen before the end of the year.

“Everything is going to be settled in thirty or forty minutes,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) with a straight face, drawing laughter from other reporters gathered off the Senate floor.

“We got a lot of time left,” said a smiling Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), also doing a little Senatorial Stand Up.

Even though Baucus is head of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, he didn’t seem to have any hint on what might be next, shying away from the idea of bringing something to the Senate floor as suggested by Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell.

“Generally, I’m in favor of old fashioned legislating,” Baucus said, “but I’d have to see what his idea is.”

For the most part, the Big Four Congressional leaders traded jabs on Friday, a day after House Republican efforts on the fiscal cliff went down in flames, with Democrats demanding that Speaker Boehner move a Democratic bill on the House floor and Republicans calling for Democrats to move a Republican bill on the Senate floor.

In other words, lots of talk, but not much action.

A lot of us had planned on working through this weekend and maybe right into Christmas Eve on the fiscal cliff – after all – we had worked the last three Christmas Eves in the Congress.

But the lack of progress will give everyone a long Christmas weekend, as the House and Senate will not return until Thursday the 27th.

You could feel the sense of relief in the halls of the Capitol, as everyone realized they would at least get a few days off.

I saw staffers carrying bottles of wine in the basement, heading for a holiday party; I also spied a Senate aide tipping a little whiskey into a drink in the hallway near the Senate chamber, a first in my many years here on Capitol Hill.

For some, no alcohol was needed to be optimistic about this fiscal cliff gridlock.

“We’ll get it done next week,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who said a little “common sense” on both sides would help the country avoid going over the cliff.

“There has to be, for the sake of the country,” Nelson said, wishing me a Merry Christmas with a thumbs up and a smile as he stepped into the “Senators Only” elevator.

At times like these in the Congress, Nelson often quotes one passage from the Bible, Isiah 1:18, which says, “Come now, let us reason together.”

Judging from the President’s remarks before leaving for a Christmas trip to Hawaii, the job of Congress has become a bit easier, as Mr. Obama now wants both parties to approve a slimmed-down deal. 

The plan would extend the Bush tax rates for 98% of Americas, extend long term jobless benefits and sets up a process that “lays the groundwork for further work on both growth and deficit reduction.”

In other words, some of the most contentious items – in fact, many of them – would be booted into the New Year.