* A few days seen needed to put deal into legislation
* Leaders would aim to head off procedural delays
* 2011 budget deal showed how fast Congress can act
By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, Dec 17 The U.S. Congress, when it
moves at all, moves slowly. But when its back is against the
wall, as it will be on any deal to resolve the year-end "fiscal
cliff," it can be very efficient.
For example, barely two days separated the announcement of a
deal on the debt ceiling on July 31, 2011, and its enactment on
That required limits on the time for debate and a ban on
amendments, which in turn required solid support from the
leadership of both parties.
Realistically, aides on Capitol Hill estimate that if
President Barack Obama reaches a deal with Republicans on
avoiding the fiscal cliff, it could take about a week for
specialists in Congress to translate the pact into legislation
and for the House of Representatives and Senate to then vote on
Republican House Speaker John Boehner is in negotiations
with the White House on deficit-reduction ideas that would
replace $600 billion in potentially devastating tax increases
and spending cuts that are scheduled to begin in January.
An impasse between the two showed signs of improvement over
the weekend after Boehner indicated a willingness to allow
income tax rates to rise on the richest Americans - those with
net incomes above $1 million a year - as part of a
Obama has insisted on the tax rate hike as a necessary first
step before progress could be made on long-term spending cuts,
but the president was seeking a lower, $250,000-a-year threshold
for raising income taxes.
The speed with which Congress could act on a deal - mindful
of the Dec. 31 deadline it faces - will depend on the scope and
complexity of the agreement reached by Obama and Boehner.
The more complex the deal, the longer it will take to draft.
For example, if a complicated "framework" is included
instructing Congress to take specific steps next year, that
could add to the time it takes to write the legislation. This is
especially true if it includes an enforcement mechanism - a
trigger like automatic spending cuts - aimed at pressuring
lawmakers to actually follow through next year.
"I think the goal is to get a deal before Christmas," a
senior House Republican aide said, adding it may take until New
Year's Eve to get it ready for a vote by the House and Senate.
A senior Senate aide speculated that it would take three to
five days to transform a deal into legislative language - the
bills that would be debated in the two chambers.
"From handshake to vote, the quickest possible would be five
to six days" for passage, the aide said.
Once a bill or bills are written, the aide said the
Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation
would have to review the provisions to determine whether they
actually would achieve the goals that were intended.
For example, the CBO would review any spending cuts
contained in the deal and "score" their savings and impact on
budget deficits. The same for the Joint Committee's assessment
of any revenue increases.
Once CBO and the Joint Committee "scores" are in place, the
legislation technically would be ready to move to the House and
Senate floors. Measures that contain tax changes, which this
deal is expected to have, technically must be approved first by
the House, but there are ways around that requirement if leaders
see the need.
A House rule requires that once legislation is publicly
posted, it must wait 72 hours before being debated on the House
During that time, Boehner and his leadership team would
spend many hours rounding up the votes for passage. If it looked
as if the measure was going to fail, they could either postpone
the House debate or try to alter the deal to win more support.
In the Senate, there are plenty of delays that individual
senators could erect if they wanted to slow down the bill.
Those roadblocks could require that the Senate muster at
least 60 votes in the 100-member chamber for the legislation to
move to debate and then votes on passage.
Any changes that either chamber were to make to the measure
through amendments could also complicate matters. Once the deal
is reached, however, leaders would work hard to avoid
controversial amendments that could make everything fall apart.
If the House and Senate do manage to pass the legislation,
Obama likely would act quickly to sign it into law, racing
against the Dec. 31 deadline.
There was no better example than August 2011, when Obama
signed a deficit-reduction and debt-increase measure just before
the country was set to default.
If the Obama-Boehner negotiations bog down but eventually
succeed, it is possible that the legislation would not be voted
on until the first week of 2013.
Last week, Representative Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking
Democrat in the House, floated the possibility that if there was
an agreement in principle by year's end, Congress could extend
current tax and spending rates for a couple of weeks to provide
more time to actually pass the new regime into law.