Senate Leader Says Deal Is Unlikely Before Fiscal Deadline

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WASHINGTON -- Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, warned Thursday that there was scant time to put together a Congressional deal to avert the impending fiscal crisis and that no resolution was in sight.

"I have to be very honest," Mr. Reid said as the Senate convened in an unusual session between Christmas and New Year's Day. "I don't know time-wise how it can happen now."

Mr. Reid offered his pessimistic assessment shortly before President Obama, cutting his vacation short, arrived back in Washington on Air Force One. White House officials said that before leaving Hawaii, Mr. Obama had spoken separately by phone with each of the four Congressional leaders about the status of negotiations, but they gave no details of the discussion.

Mr. Obama is expected to invite all four lawmakers to meet on Friday. In a related development, House Republicans were told to return to Washington on Sunday. Republican senators were planning to convene at the Capitol -- normally somnolent during Christmas week -- to strategize.

On the Senate floor Thursday, Mr. Reid excoriated House Republicans for failing to consider a Senate-passed measure that would extend lower tax rates on household income up to $250,000. He urged House members to return to the Capitol to put together at least a modest deal to avoid the more than half-a-trillion dollars in automatic tax increases and spending cuts set to begin in January.

"The American people are waiting for the ball to drop," Mr. Reid said, "but it's not going to be a good drop."

A spokesman for Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader, confirmed that he had spoken with the president, and said that Mr. McConnell was "happy to review what the president has in mind." But the spokesman, Don Stewart, said Senate Democrats had not come ahead with a plan.

"When they do, members on both sides of the aisle will review the legislation and make decisions on how best to proceed," Mr. Stewart said.

Mr. Reid said that absent a move from Republicans, the Senate would move forward this week on a national security measure concerning espionage, as well as a bill to help states that have suffered hurricane damage, with multiple votes possible.

"We are here in Washington working," Mr. Reid said, "while the members of the House of Representatives are out watching movies and watching their kids play soccer and basketball and doing all kinds of things. They should be here."

Senators, frustrated, pessimistic and in some cases downright miserable, returned to Washington with no clear fiscal agenda. Senator Ben Nelson, a retiring Democrat of Nebraska, arrived shortly after midnight on Thursday on a flight that was delayed more than four hours. As he walked through the airport, he lamented the deteriorating political comity that he has observed during two terms in the Senate and two terms as a Democratic governor of a conservative state.

"There are folks who are elected who have come here with an agenda to do nothing and want to stop everything," Mr. Nelson said in an interview. "It may be the new norm – blocking everything."

For Mr. Nelson, who decided against seeking a third term, the looming fiscal crisis would be the final legislative act of a political career built around a bipartisan voting record. He said he was not confident that a real deal could be reached that would be acceptable to both sides, considering that Congress is filled with many people "who didn't accept the 2008 presidential election and haven't accepted the 2012 election either."

Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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