Congressional fiscal cliff rumblings

As Chaplain Barry Black opened the first post-Thanksgiving session of the Senate with a prayer on Monday afternoon, there was still some hope in the hallways of the Capitol that the recent holiday might have tempered the political attacks that have marked the debate over the fiscal cliff.

After all, the Capitol Christmas tree had arrived earlier on a gorgeous sunny but chilly day in Washington, D.C.  There was a holiday spirit seemingly hanging over the Capitol complex.

And then, just after 2 p.m., the leaders of both parties took the floor and spent most of the next hour jabbing each other and their respective sides over how best to solve the tax and budget impasse.

The Congress was back in session.

Speaking about the fiscal cliff, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid repeatedly quoted President Dwight Eisenhower about compromise, saying that "seeking the middle of the road isn't just acceptable, it's the only way forward," as Democrats push Republicans to accept income tax rate hikes on the wealthy.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell didn't sit idly by, as he argued the GOP has made an offer to increase tax revenues, but only if Democrats will then respond with real budget cuts and entitlement reforms.

"We've been clear about what we'll do and what we won't," McConnell said.

Things really got spicy when the two leaders engaged in a lengthy back-and-forth about the latest threat by Reid to clamp down on some filibusters, as both men kept trying to get in the last word.

"Of course that statement is untrue," Reid said at one point about a McConnell argument.

"How would you feel if two years from now, I have your job and my members are saying let's get rid of the filibuster," McConnell retorted a few minutes later.

"The election is over," Reid added.

Even after Reid and McConnell left the floor 54 minutes into Monday's session, other Senators joined in, as the chilly afternoon breeze outside seemed to be flooding into the Senate chamber as well.

We all wondered in the Press Gallery - was this just for show? Or was it a real representation of where the fiscal cliff negotiations stand right now?

Was this just the Senate equivalent of former Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver arguing with the umpires to get a rise out of the crowd?

Or was this the real deal, an acidic post-holiday exchange that shows just how difficult it will be to reach a deal, demonstrating that the optimistic talk right after the election of a deal was a naive assumption by some politicians and members of the news media?

Or was this something more simple - just two Senate bulls pawing the dirt?

A few hours later, the divisive nature of political Washington reared its head again in the Senate, as a bipartisan sportsmen's bill, designed to expand hunting and fishing access on federal lands, was derailed by GOP budgetary objections to a planned $142 million increase in spending over ten years.

The extra money would have been paid for by increasing the cost of duck stamps, but Republicans noted it was not authorized, and thus violated Senate budget rules. Democrats needed 60 votes to waive that budget objection, but could only muster a majority on a 50-44 tally.

If you can't get a sportmen's bill through the Senate, how can you get a major tax and budget deal through the Congress?

The clock is ticking. 

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