With fiscal cliff negotiations stalled, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has called his old dance partner Vice President Joe Biden in from the sidelines.
"I have also placed a call to the vice president to see if he could help jump start the negotiations on his side," McConnell said on the floor Sunday afternoon. "The vice president and I have worked together on solutions before and I believe we can again."
In fact, the outcome now mainly hinges on what, if anything, the vice president and the Republican Senate leader can work out. The two men talked multiple times Sunday and continued their conversations into the evening, according to a Senate Republican leadership aide.
Biden stepped in as talks between Reid and McConnell stalled out.The behind-the-scenes discussions left lawmakers, staffers and reporters largely out of the loop Sunday as the two men tried to hammer out a deal.
Not even Republican House Speaker John Boehner knew where the talks stood Sunday night.
Boehner "actually said, ‘Look I’ve stayed out of those negotiations. Every time we get involved we get burned, so we’re just gonna let the Senate work its will, see what they do and what they send us and we’ll react accordingly,’” GOP Rep. Tom Cole recounted after a conference meeting Sunday night. “He was very careful, he actually made the point, ‘I literally don’t know what they’re talking about.’”
Cole said Republicans cheered the idea of including a nine-month farm bill extension in a final deal while Republican Rep. Scott Tipton said his colleagues would also like to see spending cuts included.
Meanwhile, across the Capitol, talks between Reid and McConnell stalled Sunday over Republicans' insistence that a deal include changes to how the government calculates entitlement benefits, a reform known as "chained CPI."
Democrats rejected the proposal, arguing that their willingness to discuss chained CPI was only in the context of a grand bargain that included entitlement and tax reform, not the scaled-back package Senate leaders are now attempting to craft.
Chained CPI calculations would reduce the rate of increase for Social Security benefits and other entitlements. Many Democrats oppose the change. On the Senate floor Sunday afternoon, Reid reiterated that opposition saying "we're not going to have any Social Security cuts."
And, in a move that has mystified Republicans, Reid added that "at this stage, we're not able to make a counteroffer."
Republicans don't understand why Reid wouldn't keep the negotiations moving by making a formal counteroffer that didn't include chained CPI. McConnell said Republicans made their last offer at 7 p.m. Saturday night and had not heard back from Democrats.
After a meeting of Republican senators Sunday afternoon, Sens. Olympia Snowe, Bob Corker and Dean Heller all said the GOP had taken the chained CPI proposal off the table.
Reid emerged from a meeting of his Democratic colleagues and said the GOP was right to take chained CPI off the table, but told reporters, "We're still left with a proposal they've given us that protects the wealthy and not the middle class."
Reid said he made a counteroffer, but did not discuss the details. A Reid spokesman later walked back the majority leader's statement, saying he has not made a counteroffer.
"I'm concerned about the lack of urgency here," McConnell said.
Republican aides would not say what was in that offer. But privately some suggested that Reid may have been stalling for time until he could address his colleagues during a closed door meeting Sunday afternoon.
A Senate Democratic leadership aide called the GOP's decision to inject chained CPI into the talks last night "a major setback."
But in his remarks on the floor Sunday afternoon, Reid still held out hope for a deal saying, "I'm not overly optimistic but I am cautiously optimistic that we can get something done."
Caren Bohan, Niraj Chokshi and Elahe Izadi contributed.