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Post-Christmas Session Inevitable, Schumer Hints

Sen. Charles E. Schumer signaled Wednesday that a post-Christmas Senate session to handle any agreement on a package to avert the fiscal cliff is becoming inevitable.

The New York Democrat said that some senators plan to head to Hawaii on Saturday to attend the funeral service for the late Democratic Sen. Daniel K. Inouye who died Monday. The service is scheduled to take place on Sunday at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.

Both Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are said to be planning to make the weekend trip.

Though President Barack Obama and Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, gave dueling press conferences Wednesday that cast doubt on whether a deal on the fiscal cliff is possible before the new year, Schumer sounded optimistic.

“They’re not that far apart,” he said of the positions taken by the White House and House GOP leaders in the negotiations on a year-end tax and spending package. “If they were to come to an agreement, say on Friday, God willing, they could write the stuff over the Christmas break, and then we’d have to come back before the New Year and pass it.”

In the most plausible scenario, the Senate could come back into session late on Dec. 26 or on Dec. 27.

While the news may be welcome to many on Capitol Hill because it would mean they could take a few days off for Christmas, the same can not be said for policy staffers and those in offices involved in getting any deal into legislative language, including legislative counsel, the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Schumer, the No. 3 Senate Democrat, said it has been his understanding that the negotiations had largely stalled after Obama and Boehner traded proposals earlier this week. Still, he said he remains hopeful.

“As you know, the speaker suspended negotiations with the president earlier this week. My understanding is the two sides haven’t spoken since Monday,” Schumer said. “I don’t think anybody should get too dispirited, however. It always looks darkest before the dawn.”

Schumer made his comments at a news conference with Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, one of the leaders of the Senate’s liberal wing on economic issues. The duo convened the media availability to criticize Boehner’s decision to push his “plan B” — a bill to ensure that taxes do not go up on anyone making less than $1 million a year.

“Let’s be clear, Speaker Boehner’s ‘plan B’ is just the latest die-hard effort protect as many wealthy Americans as possible from the tax increase that kicks in on Jan. 1,” Harkin said at the press conference.

The White House has threatened to veto the bill should it reach Obama’s desk.

Harkin added that Boehner’s plan, while giving a tax cut to everyone but millionaires, would hurt the middle class by reducing subsidies for low- and medium-income families, and for education.

“What Boehner is proposing is strictly a hit on the lower rungs on the middle class of America,” Harkin said.

Democrats had initially sought to extend tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 to households making less than $250,000 a year. But in a negotiation with Boehner, the president had suggested setting the threshold at $400,000 a year.

Schumer forced a Senate vote on the $1 million threshold in the 2010 lame-duck session, but the proposal was defeated.

Asked if he still supports the $1 million figure, Schumer said that the political landscape has changed from 2010 and the president won re-election on the $250,000 level.

“The Republicans had their chance two years ago,” Schumer said. “We put it on the floor, if they would have voted for it, we would have had it. But you can’t turn the clock back two years.”

Harkin criticized the president for negotiating to $400,000 from $250,000

“In the latest poll, 74 percent of the American people supported that, why are we going to $400,000?” Harkin asked after the press conference.

“If there was one place where Obama should have dug in his heels and said, ‘No, the American people spoke, now what else do you want to talk about,’” Harkin said. “Every time you raise that amount [the difference] has to come out of the spending side …[and] really hits middle-class Americans.”

Harkin added that he doesn’t want to see the use of chained-CPI that affects Social Security or doesn’t protect lower-income beneficiaries. Chained-CPI is a slower means of calculating the inflation rate, which affects cost of living adjustments for federal programs

Obama appears to have embraced the idea and floated a “superlative CPI” that the White House says would shield the neediest beneficiaries from the change.

“I am not supportive a chained-CPI at all, but I recognize reality,” Harkin said, adding that anything dealing with Social Security should be off the table.

It was unclear earlier Wednesday afternoon if the House would have sufficient votes to advance the measure (H J Res 66), pushing back a scheduled meeting of the House Rules Committee to consider the legislative vehicle for Boehner’s package that would extend many lower tax rates on families earning up to $1 million per year.

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