For the Senate to act would require a commitment from McConnell not to demand a 60-vote margin to consider the legislation on the Senate floor. McConnell's office says it's too early to make such an assessment because Democrats have not put forward a specific plan and have been unclear on whether extended benefits for the unemployed would be paid for with cuts in other programs or on how it would deal with an expiring estate tax, among other issues.
The questions hanging over Washington Thursday centered on whether Reid would offer a specific piece of legislation, whether McConnell would allow it to proceed to a vote on the Senate floor and, if the Senate bill passed, whether Boehner would then call House lawmakers back to Washington to vote on it. All those issues remained unresolved, and success before the end of the year appeared a long shot at best.
Reid said the GOP-controlled House easily could have passed a White House-approved plan with a majority of Democratic votes and a few dozen Republican votes. But House leaders generally avoid such tactics, because they might alienate the Republican caucus and jeopardize the speaker's job.
The House has passed a Republican plan to avert the fiscal cliff, and the Senate has passed a Democratic version. Their deficit-reduction projections differ by hundreds of billions of dollars over 10 years.
Adding to the mix of developments pushing toward a "fiscal cliff," Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on Wednesday informed Congress that the government was on track to hit its borrowing limit on Monday and said he would take "extraordinary measures as authorized by law" to postpone a government default.
Still, he added, uncertainty about the outcome of negotiations over taxes and spending made it difficult to determine how much time those measures would buy.
Follow Jim Kuhnhenn on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jkuhnhenn
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