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Congress Stumbles Toward Fiscal Cliff's Edge

Private talks, public chaos. This may be the worst Congress of the modern era, but they do know how to drag a fight out as long as humanly possible.

Posted on December 30, 2012, at 6:31 p.m. ET

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

WASHINGTON — The total chaos on Capitol Hill Sunday appeared at times to hint at private talks between key Senate leaders — but most of the Senate and the press milled around unaware of any progress, and at times convinced that the country will plunge off the "fiscal cliff" early Tuesday morning and into a crisis of spending cuts, tax increases, and an expected stock market crash.

“It’s all up in the air,” Sen. John Cornyn told reporters Sunday night following a two hour long closed door meeting of Republicans in the Capitol.

A few doors down the hall, Democrats were holding their own discussions and depending on which rank and file members one of the dozens of reporters loitering outside talked to, you could get a dramatically different story.

When Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim asked West Virginia Democrat Sen. Jay Rockefeller if a deal was possible, the veteran lawmaker said simply, "No."

“There I think is still a path forward,” Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte told Buzzfeed.

Lawmakers couldn’t even agree on what the major issues were. Democrats insisted that a Republican proposal to use a less generous cost of living adjustment for Social Security and Medicare — known as "chained CPI" — had ground the talks to a halt. But Republicans insisted that not only was it not a deal breaker, but that they had quickly and voluntarily taken it off the table in the interest of a short-term deal.

The confusion got so bad Sunday not even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his office could get on the same page: following the meeting with his caucus, Reid told reporters he had made a counter offer to Senate Minority Mitch McConnell. Reid’s office immediately tried to pull that back.

When the news hit the twitter feeds of dozens of reporters, the Democratic leader's office first said he had not, in fact said that. His spokesman quickly pivoted to the only-slightly-less-puzzling argument that Reid was being “rhetorical” when he said he had made a proposal he had not, in fact, made.

That’s not to say substantive talks weren’t also underway. McConnell talked with Vice President Joe Biden throughout the day, and lawmakers hinted that Biden may have made counter-offers of his own. And the normally combative Reid was unusually conciliatory all day, a sure sign that work on a deal was still going on.

The relative confusion amongst rank-and file-members over where the negotiations stand was likely also a good sign for the prospects of some sort of deal being reached: McConnell and Reid generally play these sorts of negotiations close to the vest so long as they are making progress and only start throwing bombs once the process has broken down.

The question, of course, is when a deal will be cut. The 112th Congress’ track record is mostly one of dysfunction, partisanship and gridlock. But one thing they have demonstrated an aptitude for is finding a way to muddle through crises of their own making just moments before the stroke of midnight.

As New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer told reporters Sunday: “Listen, these things always happen at the end."

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