Breaking: Obama to speak about fiscal cliff at 1:30; Update: Tax deal done? Update: Sabotage?

Just an FYI in case you’re one of the few Americans who’s still following this. Remember that O said on Friday that if Reid and McConnell couldn’t reach a deal by Monday, he’d ask Reid to bring the Obama plan — featuring tax hikes on all earners above $250,000 — up for a vote on the Senate floor. According to the AP, the “contours” of a deal are emerging as I write this. Good enough to buy more time for negotiations, or is O about to pull the plug and demand that up-or-down vote after all?

The contours of a deal to avert the ‘fiscal cliff’ emerged Monday, with Democrats and Republicans agreeing to raise tax rates on couples making over $450,000 a year, increase the estate tax rate and extend unemployment benefits for one year, officials familiar with the negotiations said…

The deal in the works would return tax rates on families making over $450,000 to 39.6 percent, the same level as under former President Bill Clinton. The agreement would also raise tax on estates worth more than $5 million from 35 percent to 40 percent. Unemployment benefits would be extended for one year.

A “senior Republican side” tells Reuters that a majority of Senate Republicans are expected to vote yes on the deal. Republicans may not be the main stumbling block anymore, though. There’s a lot of angst among liberals this morning about Democrats backing off of the $250,000 threshold for new taxes, with people as prominent as Tom Harkin dumping all over the proposed deal. Joshua Green explains:

With the caveat that no reporter is privy to the details of the offers being swapped, here is the deal that seemed to be emerging: Democrats would get an extension of unemployment benefits for 2.1 million people; they’d patch the alternative minimum tax for a year to protect the middle class from sharp tax hikes; and they’d implement a “doc fix” to ensure that Medicare reimbursement rates to doctors don’t fall precipitously and limit patients’ access to medical care. Republicans would get to preserve Bush-era income tax rates for households making up to $400,000 (rather than the $250,000 limit Democrats prefer). They’d also get a lower tax rate and a much higher threshold for inheritance taxes (set to revert to 55 percent on estates of more than $1 million on Tuesday). And significantly, Republicans would hold onto their greatest point of leverage in upcoming negotiations over entitlement cuts, because the deal wouldn’t raise the debt limit.

Here’s what’s important about everything Democrats would get: It’s temporary; everything expires (presumably) within a year. Here’s what’s important about what Republicans would get: it’s permanent. The tax rates won’t expire.

That means Democrats are offering a huge gift to Republicans and getting almost nothing in return because on Jan. 1, if no deal is struck, Democrats will get even more revenue than they’re asking for without conceding a thing. And if, as polls suggest, voters would blame Republicans for going over the cliff, Democrats are also offering to save Republicans from their worst impulses—which, at least for the time being, since they haven’t yet agreed, is to reject this deal.

A GOP source made the same point to Philip Klein, boasting that the emerging deal would trade “permanent Republican priorities in exchange for temporary Democratic priorities.” I’m mystified as to why Democrats would budge that far on the income threshold for new taxes when they can wait another 11 hours and then pound the table for tax hikes on the $250K and up crowd, as O demanded all along. If you’re not even getting the GOP to agree to raise the debt ceiling in return, why would you do such a thing? Lefty Jonathan Chait doesn’t understand it either and thinks all it’ll do is convince the GOP that they can make Obama blink on the debt ceiling if they hold out on that in a few months too.

Hence the mystery of O’s 1:30 appearance. Is he going to go out there and say he’s “encouraged by the progress” or whatever and hopeful that a deal can be reached in the next few hours, or is he going to side with progressives and call this a crap deal that he can’t support and demand that Reid bring O’s own bill up for a vote? (The latter would be odd given that his own VP is now evidently the lead Democratic negotiator.) I think he’ll do both: He’ll set a deadline of, say, 5 p.m. today for a negotiated deal and then ask for a vote on his plan if nothing’s been hammered out by then. Presumably the GOP will filibuster it — why vote yes if there’s a better deal for Republicans being negotiated between Biden and McConnell? — and then O can whine about it for a day or two until something finally passes both houses.

Stand by for updates.

Update: Liberals care trying to figure out the Democrats’ strategy in moving off of the $250K threshold. Ezra Klein says they’re giving a little now in the expectation of getting a lot later — namely, they’re planning to ask for further tax hikes in exchange for entitlement cuts as part of the inevitable debt-ceiling deal in the spring. Greg Sargent is more pessimistic and thinks they’re caving because they’ve realized they don’t have quite as much leverage as they thought:

A White House ally spells out an alternative interpretation. Dems don’t necessarily believe going over the cliff will give them all that much more leverage in the talks next year. It’s been widely argued (by me and many others) that if we do go over the cliff, Dems can simply move to pass the Obama Tax Cuts For The Middle Class, forcing House Republicans to go along. But some Dems question whether House Republicans will feel the need to follow this script. Rather, the thinking goes, if Dems do that next year, the House GOP leadership can pass its own bill cutting taxes on all income up to, say, $500,000 or $600,000.

If the idea is that it’s easier for Republicans to support continuing tax cuts just on some income levels after they’ve all expired, such a bill (with $500,000 or $600,000 as the threshold) could pass the House. What’s more, some Congressional Democrats may feel like they have to support such a bill, too. And the worry is that if this is then kicked over to the Senate, then some Senate Dems may feel tempted to support it or at least negotiate around it, which could divide Senate Dems. After all, some of them have already voiced support for putting the income threshold at $500,000 or $1 million.

And so, the idea is that it’s better to lock in a deal on rates now, at, say, $450,000, extend unemployment benefits, and pocket those gains and continue the fight next year.

Obama can’t hold his own caucus together on one of his signature policy demands, flush from a landslide presidential election win? What?

Update: Sounds like the key sticking point is unstuck:

Update: Equally baffling, why doesn’t the GOP, the self-styled party of “the family,” push for this?

Update: Marco Rubio said yesterday that he thinks most Senate Republicans are disinclined to filibuster whatever ends up coming to the floor, but I assume that’s limited to whatever bill emerges from negotiations. They’ll surely filibuster Obama’s bill if Reid brings it up. Why wouldn’t they at this point, when they know how far Dems will bend on the income threshold?

Update: Via Mediaite, Bob Corker reminds us just how embarrassingly low the stakes are here from the standpoint of deficit reduction. Quote: “This is a lot of fuss about nothing today, unless you make, you know, somewhere between $350,000 a year and $550,000, today’s discussion is totally irrelevant, because that’s all that’s being discussed.”

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Update: Expect the obligatory amount of preening at this presser but not much news:

Update: Like Corker said, totally irrelevant:

Update: Senate GOP aides tell NRO that the two sides have agreed on the tax numbers. Details: $400K for individuals, $450K for married couples, and a 40 percent tax on estates above $5 million. Can it pass the House, though? Quote:

Update: O’s presser is done and the tone was … not helpful. In fact, a la Ezra Klein’s piece above, he specifically warned the GOP to expect a new demand for taxes when the debt ceiling standoff comes:

Why antagonize the other side when we’re finally on the cusp of a deal? Because, silly: He knows his base is going to hate this deal after he promised them an income threshold of $250K and tweaking the GOP is one way to get back in their good graces. In fact, if he tweaks them enough, Republicans might walk away in annoyance, which would bail O out by not only canceling the deal but letting the White House blame the GOP for its failure. To wit:

Update: Timothy Noah of TNR posts an open letter to Senate and House Democrats begging them to kill this deal. Meanwhile, Obama’s attempt to bait Republicans into walking away may be paying dividends:

Update: Mercifully, the House Republican leadership is whispering that they’re more likely to vote tomorrow on a final bill instead of late tonight, when no one but no one will be paying attention. Taxes do go up at midnight, but since markets are closed for the holiday tomorrow, the impact will be negligible — assuming that the final bill does end up passing, of course.

Update: Is the GOP about to take the bait?

Update: Another reason why the House is more inclined to vote tomorrow:

GOP sources admitted there is an added benefit to the Senate’s delay: taxes would already be up, so lawmakers could argue that they are voting for tax cuts, as opposed to tax increases.

One GOP source also said that may help get more House Republicans to vote for the deal.

“I wouldn’t overestimate it, but a handful may be the difference we need,” the source said.

Update: Interesting analogy. The difference is, Leon Lett didn’t fumble intentionally.