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Senate Outlook on Fiscal Cliff No Better Than House’s

Senate Democrats and Republicans did not appear to have a consensus way forward Friday on the looming fiscal cliff in the aftermath of the House GOP’s shocking failure to pass a “plan B” Thursday night.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., went through the motions of a floor fight Friday and, like the House, seemed stuck in long-held positions. McConnell would like Reid to take up a House-approved one-year extension of all current tax rates, while Reid would like the House to take up the Senate-approved bill to let taxes rise on those making more than $250,000 a year.

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Thursday abruptly canceled a scheduled vote on his plan B bill that would allow taxes on millionaires to go up while ensuring all other taxpayers continue to pay Bush-era rates.

Aides from both parties suggested that their public disagreement was not just for show, especially given that Senate Democrats have no plans yet to offer any alternative other than Republicans accepting the already-passed Senate bill. That legislation, of course, cannot formally be approved by Congress without Senate GOP help because of a “blue slip” issue. Traditional House procedure prevents that chamber from taking up the bill because it contains revenue provisions and was not generated in the House.

Many in the House have been hoping that Senate leaders would take up the mantle of averting the cliff. But most in the Senate doubted history would repeat itself and were resigned to Congress failing to avert scheduled tax increases and automatic spending cuts at the start of the new year.

Members are even divided on whether it’s even possible for the Senate to take the lead on the talks, which to date have centered largely around the speaker and the president — a pairing that has failed on multiple occasions over the past two years to strike any sort of budget deal.

“It does appear that the Senate may be a place where something now needs to take place, and I think that’s maybe a given, so we’ll see what happens,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who had no further suggestion on what his party might do.

Corker added that members were surprised by the House GOP’s failure Thursday to approve its backup tax bill, which would have raised tax rates on incomes above $1 million a year. He said the failure was a setback.

“The ball is now not moving along as it was,” Corker said.

But Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., was doubtful.

“I wouldn’t bet that given the leadership of the Senate,” Coburn said, when asked whether it was the Senate’s turn to lead the charge.

Pressed on whether he meant just the Democrats or also his own leadership, he said, “I’ll leave it where I said it.”

After the House failed to pass a Wall Street bailout in 2008, Reid and McConnell saved the effort by having the Senate move first on a deal that was passed overwhelmingly. But the politics of such actions have become perilous for Republicans.

McConnell and other GOP senators encountered vocal criticism for that 2008 effort. McConnell, who faces re-election in two years, faced even more conservative anger over his efforts to broker a compromise to the debt limit deal in 2011.

On Friday, McConnell tried one last time to defend the House Republican position to avert the cliff, urging Reid to take up legislation that would extend the current tax rates for a year and then instruct committees to work on a comprehensive tax overhaul in 2013.

“We can bring this House-passed bill up,” McConnell said. “If Sen. Reid has a plan that can get 60 votes in the Senate, break through the disarray in his own caucus and build bipartisan support, offer that as an amendment and then let’s vote. Let’s vote on amendments from all sides.”

“And then let’s go to conference with the House of Representatives,” McConnell continued. “They’ve already passed a bill, one that I support, to prevent a tax hike on all Americans and reform the tax code. Let’s take it up here and get this done.”

Reid, however, was having none of it, and said it was on Boehner to bring up the Senate-approved bill. Senate Democratic aides said there is no contingency plan other than to extend taxes for middle-class Americans before the Jan. 1 deadline. Reid also said it was time for Boehner to get back to the table with Obama.

Senate Republican aides, seeing no other options from Reid, were very much resigned Friday to going over the cliff. The Senate is scheduled to return to work Dec. 27, but the business on the floor is likely to be a reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, according to Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

“It’s impossible for us to know, short of Reid doing something,” one GOP aide said regarding what might happen in the holiday-turned-workweek between Christmas and New Year’s. “We don’t really have the time … and if we’re coming back next week, it would be good for us to have something to do” regarding the cliff.

Several key members, including Reid, are scheduled to leave Washington on a government plane Saturday to attend the funeral in Honolulu for the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye. According to sources, the return plane is not scheduled to arrive back in Washington until early on Christmas Eve.

Joanna Anderson contributed to this report.

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