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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 ...

The week after the election, Mr. Reid had travelled to the White House to try to determine whether Mr. Obama had the “spine” to stick to his guns in the negotiations, according to the aide. Mr. Reid then assured his fellow Democrats that the president, buoyed by his election win, would stand firm.

But by late December, Senate Democrats watched in amazement as Mr. Obama offered a higher, $400,000 income threshold for those who would see their taxes rise under his proposal compared to his original $250,000 figure, a willingness to cut cost-of-living benefits for retirees and a temporary instead of permanent increase in the debt limit.

“It was disheartening to supporters. He just telegraphed to Republicans a willingness to move higher at the drop of a hat,” the aide said. “We got nickeled and dimed on everything,” he said.

Once Mr. Biden and Mr. McConnell cut their deal in the waning hours of 2012 - the one that kept lower taxes for everyone but those with high incomes - the White House leaked to reporters that Reid had signed off on the pact.

According to the senior Senate Democratic aide, Mr. Reid had not given his backing yet. He simply told the White House that Mr. Biden was welcome to come to the Senate, meet with Democratic senators “and try and sell the deal.”

Mr. Reid promised that if the caucus was convinced by Mr. Biden, Mr. Reid would do everything he could to deliver a strong vote. But now he was out of the loop too.

Why could Mr. McConnell and Mr. Biden bring off the deal when others couldn’t?

“They’re experienced hands,” said Trent Lott, a former Republican senator from Mississippi who was majority leader from June 1996 to January 2001.

“They have respect for each others’ abilities and truthfulness,” he said in an interview with Reuters. “.... They’re old bulls. They know how to get the deal done.”

Mr. Lott, who was a member of Congress for more than three decades, said it was “revisionist history” to see his era as some golden age of comity in Washington.

But “clearly the atmosphere has changed over the years. I don’t know when it started drifting to the point where it is,” he said.

Mr. Lott said he was struck by the fact that an agreement of such magnitude was ultimately the work not of the president or the House speaker, but of the Senate minority leader and the vice president.

“A lot of people in Washington ought to be embarrassed,” Mr. Lott said.

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