By John Lyon
As the U.S. House prepared to meet Sunday for a last-ditch effort to avoid the New Year's Eve "fiscal cliff," members of Arkansas' congressional delegation differed on the likelihood of a successful resolution to the current budget impasse.
In interviews Friday, U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said he was optimistic about the chances for a meaningful agreement, while U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, said avoiding the fiscal cliff appeared unlikely. Others in the delegation fell somewhere in between.
If a budget agreement is not reached by midnight on New Year's Eve, a series of automatic tax increases and budget cuts will be triggered that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, could lead to a mild recession in the first half of 2013. Households would see an average federal tax increase of $3,446, and most federal departments would share in a $110 billion spending cut -- including about a 9 percent to the military's budget.
"I'm cautiously optimistic," Pryor said. "There's a lot of discussion going on, and I think that's positive."
Some have said that if the fiscal cliff is averted it likely will be through a short-term agreement that delays the tax increases and budget cuts for a few weeks to give the incoming Congress time to hammer out a long-term agreement.
Pryor said that is "a plausible scenario," but "you can set targets and make them meaningful. You can come up with a fairly large deal. It just depends right now what the House wants to do. The history of this has been that the Senate has been willing to work through these issues and the House has been where the problem is."
Democrats control the Senate and Republicans control the House.
Womack said time may have run out for a deal.
"Just looking at the time sequence between now and the end of the year, we don't have a lot of time. Even if something were to come to fruition today (Friday), the legislative calendar is not set up in such a way that we could see something done by the first of the year. So quite frankly I'm not all that optimistic," he said.
But Womack said going over the fiscal cliff would not cause irreparable damage.
"My feeling is that if we ended up going over the fiscal cliff Monday night, that sometime early in the new Congress we would take steps necessary to fix the issues and make them retroactive. That's a terribly inefficient way to run government and it's not the kind of thing that leads to certainty, but we do have the ability," he said.
Womack said there is "plenty of blame to go around" for the lack of a deal so close to the deadline, but he said the House has already passed legislation to avoid the fiscal cliff and the Senate has failed to act on it.
"All they've got to do if they don't like what we've sent them is amend it and send it back, but we can't even get the Senate to do its duty," he said.
Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, said he was optimistic that a deal would be reached to avoid going over the cliff, but "I am not optimistic that it will be as big and bold as I believe we need to help address some of our fiscal problems."
Griffin said the tax increases that would be triggered if Congress fails to reach a budget agreement were signed into law by President Obama in 2010 before Griffin took office in 2011. He placed much of the blame for the impasse on the Democratic president.
"I don't believe the president is willing to compromise or has demonstrated willingness to compromise one bit," he said.
The gridlock has been between Republicans who oppose raising taxes and want sweeping spending cuts and Democrats who want to end Bush-era tax cuts for those earning $250,000 or more a year and want smaller spending cuts than Republicans favor. Griffin said the philosophical divide is not likely to shrink in the near future.
"Unfortunately the American people decided to keep the Senate the way it was and the House the way it was and the White House the way it was, so here we are," he said.
Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., predicted that "an agreement will be reached, either right at the deadline or shortly after."
"Or you might even have an agreement that you could basically agree to disagree temporarily as you seek a little bit longer time to get these things worked out," he said.
Boozman said there is "an equal amount of blame to go around" for the lack of an agreement at this late date.
Rep. Mike Ross, D-Prescott, who did not run for re-election and will end his term next month, said he believed the odds of averting the fiscal cliff were "probably 50-50," but he was not optimistic about the chances for a long-term fix.
"If it is averted, it's going to be a very limited, short-term fix that the new Congress will have to revisit probably in the first quarter," he said.
Ross, known as one of the most conservative House Democrats, said he believes the root cause of the stalemate is decades of gerrymandering by both Democrats and Republicans to make districts "safe" for their candidates. Only a small percentage of House candidates now have to worry about anything but a primary opponent, which has discouraged compromise and encouraged partisanship, he said.
"Washington has become way too partisan, and that had a lot to do with why I decided 12 years was enough and I chose not to run for re-election this year," he said. "I'm as frustrated as anyone else. We've got a Congress that is very dysfunctional."
Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, declined a request for an interview but said in an emailed statement, "I am encouraged negotiations are continuing to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff.' We need to do all we can to prevent taxes from going up on working families while we continue to address the biggest problem in Washington -- spending. Increasing taxes will do nothing to address our spending problem."