Hours from 'fiscal cliff', Washington still awaits deal


The U.S. Congress comes back on Monday without a deal to avert the "fiscal cliff" and only a few hours of actual legislative time scheduled in which to act if an agreement materializes.

Negotiations involving Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell appeared to offer the last hope for avoiding the across-the-board tax increases and draconian cuts in the federal budget that will be triggered at the start of the New Year because of a deficit-reduction law enacted in August, 2011.

A jolt from the financial markets could also prod the parties, as it has occasionally in the past. "I believe investors will show their displeasure" at the lack of progress in Washington, said Mohannad Aama, managing director at Beam Capital Management, an investment advisory firm in New York.

Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate had hoped to clear the way for swift action on Sunday. But with the two sides still at loggerheads in talks, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid postponed any possible votes and the Senate adjourned until Monday.

The main sticking point between Republicans and Democrats remained whether to extend existing tax rates for everyone, as Republicans want, or just for those earning below $250,000 to $400,000, as Democrats have proposed. Also at issue were Republican demands for larger cuts in spending than those offered by President Barack Obama. Hopes for a "grand bargain" of deficit-reduction measures vanished weeks ago as talks stalled.

While Congress has the capacity to move swiftly when motivated, the leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate have left themselves little time for what could be a complicated day of procedural maneuvering in the event of an agreement.

House Speaker John Boehner has insisted that the Senate act first, but that chamber does not begin legislative business until about noon Monday.

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