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The U.S. Capitol building is pictured behind a fence as lawmakers return from the Christmas recess in Washington Dec. 27, 2012. (MARY CALVERT/Reuters)
The U.S. Capitol building is pictured behind a fence as lawmakers return from the Christmas recess in Washington Dec. 27, 2012. (MARY CALVERT/Reuters)

‘Fiscal cliff’ fracas: From smiles to distrust to rancour Add to ...

By that time, Mr. Boehner had ceased to be a force in the negotiations, thanks to his own miscalculation on Dec. 20. That’s when he brought his own “Plan B” to the House - a bill to avoid the “fiscal cliff” with minimal tax hikes on the wealthy - and then had to pull the bill when he couldn’t get enough Republicans to support it.

The defeat humiliated Mr. Boehner and, by depriving him of the ability to deliver on any commitments he might make, sidelined him in the final stages of the negotiations.

In the final days of the year, Republicans routinely accused the president of bad faith, saying he preferred to go over the ‘cliff,’ triggering the tax hikes and rattling the markets, because it would increase his ability to pressure them.

The same was said of Mr. Boehner by Democrats, including Mr. Reid.

“He’s waiting until January 3 to get re-elected as speaker before he gets serious with negotiations because he has so many people over there that won’t follow what he wants. That’s obvious from the debacle that took place last week,” Mr. Reid said in the Senate, referring to Mr. Boehner’s failed effort to get his own caucus in line on Dec. 20.

He was operating the House as a “dictatorship,” Mr. Reid added in his December 27 speech, by refusing to allow a vote on a Senate bill to avoid the automatic tax hikes and spending cuts. Mr. Boehner was re-elected as speaker on Thursday.

After that goading, Mr. Boehner let loose the next time he saw Reid.

The occasion was the final White House meeting of the standoff, on Friday, Dec. 28, as Mr. Obama and the congressional leaders were trying to figure out how to proceed.

Mr. Reid said Mr. Boehner was just mouthing “talking points,” according to a senior Democratic aide.

“The other folks at the table were engaged in a meaningful discussion. Every time the conversation got back to Boehner, he’d say ‘The House has acted; the Senate needs to act.’ It was like he arrived with a very short leash,” the aide said.

“They were walking out of the meeting,” the aide said, when Mr. Boehner turned to Mr. Reid and used profanity.

“’What?’” Reid asked, according to the aide, who said Boehner then uttered the profanity again.

Mr. Obama used the Dec. 28 meeting to ask Mr. McConnell and Mr. Reid to work up a bipartisan bill in the Senate that might win approval in the House, and they agreed. Mr. McConnell made an offer to Mr. Reid, but grew impatient waiting for a response, according to a Republican aide.

The Senate Republican left a message at 1:20 p.m. EST (1820 GMT) on Sunday, December 30 for Vice-President Joe Biden: “Please call.”

“Does anybody down there know how to do a deal?,” Mr. McConnell told Biden, a former colleague of Mr. McConnell’s in the Senate.

“There doesn’t appear to be the level of understanding that you have about these negotiations” elsewhere in the administration, Mr. McConnell told Mr. Biden.

“It’s a lack of experience. Smart people but they don’t have a good sense of the trip wires,” he added.

Despite Mr. Reid’s 25 years in the Senate, he was out of the picture.

After the Nov. 6 election, Mr. Reid had wondered whether Mr. Obama would cave or use his re-election as a hammer.

“We thought that it was a unique moment in time where we had enormous leverage over Republicans,” a senior Democratic Senate aide said, “and we were ready to play hardball.”

“This was our best opportunity to get something that’s acceptable at your point of maximum leverage in probably the eight years of his administration,” this official said.

The aide added that Wall Street experts were making a “strong case” that even if Jan. 1 came and went without a deal, as long as negotiations were continuing, the stock market would hold fairly steady for a week or so into 2013.

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