WASHINGTON — The Titanic struggle over how to reach a broad congressional tax agreement is not just the latest partisan showdown, but rather the culmination of two years of escalating fiscal confrontations, each building on the other in its gravity and consequences. On Sunday, lawmakers could not seem to find one final way out.
From the first fight over a short-term spending agreement to keep the government open in early 2011, to the later tangle over the debt ceiling to the failure of last year’s special budget committee and the resulting automatic spending cuts that now loom along with tax hikes, the so-called “fiscal cliff” was built, slab by partisan slab, to where it now threatens the nation’s finances.
“Something has gone terribly wrong,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., “when the biggest threat to our American economy is the American Congress.”
Years of increased spending on everything from wars to expanded entitlement programs — combined with protracted, stubborn unemployment and a nation of workers whose earning power and home values have plummeted in recent years — have persuaded lawmakers in both parties that fiscal policy is the most pressing domestic concern.
But a fundamental ideological chasm between the majority of lawmakers and an empowered group of congressional Republicans — fueled by some tea party victories in both chambers in 2010 — has made it more difficult than ever to reach fiscal and budgetary compromises.
In 2011, right after their big midterm victory, Republicans were able to push Democrats out of their comfort zone on spending, using short-term measures to keep the government and the debt ceiling as weapons against the Obama administration. After the 2012 election, Democrats are using that same strategy to tear Republicans from their orthodoxy on taxes, and the Republicans’ pain is evident.
“Hats off to the president — he won,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said ruefully on Sunday.
As a result, members of both parties have become increasingly addicted to short-term solutions to long-term problems, cobbling together two- and three-month bills and short-term extensions to fight over again and again until the string has run out on many major pressing issues
Further, a change in the way this Congress does business — the elimination of home-state earmarks that once greased so many congressional deals — and the escalating use of the Senate filibuster to prevent debate on even routine legislation have further hamstrung lawmakers in their efforts to get anything done.
With less than 48 hours to go before substantial tax hikes and large spending cuts affected nearly every aspect of American life, the 112th Congress was lurching toward its operatic end in a state of legislative dysfunction, partisan asymmetry and borderline chaos.
“This is one of the lowest points of the U.S. Senate,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., as she ticked off what she said were other nadirs in a long Senate career, including the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. “This is what we’re doing to ourselves.”
A Sunday session on the eve of New Year’s Eve was marked by confusion, acrimony and a fair amount of sitting around waiting for things that never happened.
On the Senate side, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, took to the floor at midday to proclaim the talks all but finished, stunning even some Democrats. Later he said, well maybe they were not. Reid said he had made a counteroffer to the most recent one offered by his Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Then his aides said that he had been sort of joking.
McConnell, seeking a lifeline, or at least perhaps a sympathetic ear, turned to Vice President Joe Biden, his old Senate friend, almost like one brother calling another to ask how to deal with the awful family fight brewing back home. Biden and McConnell have worked together for decades in the Senate and two years ago were able to cut the last major tax deal.
At some point within the pandemonium, members of Congress started talking, almost inexplicably, about the stalled farm bill. It is one of the many measures — once relatively noncontroversial and typically passed with bipartisan glee — that have expired and that Congress has been unable to renew and the sudden attention to it seemed incongruous given the crisis atmosphere.
Bending to the wishes of Speaker John A. Boehner, House members returned to the Capitol on Sunday night, ostensibly to hear about a Senate deal. But since one had not materialized, they instead contented themselves with votes on subjects like the dignified burial of veterans, and by snacking on pizza.
Rep. Bill Huizenga of Michigan, a freshman Republican who has enjoyed the highs of his party’s hard-fought victories and remains in defiance of Democrats even as that dominance has crumbled, found himself on Sunday in a place he has come to know well — the middle of an impasse.
“I feel like I’m trapped in ‘Groundhog Day,’ ” Huizenga said.
And in a way he was, as he and his colleagues found themselves yet again on the brink of a fiscal crisis, this one magnified by all the others before it.