The negotiating teams traded ideas back and forth on a wintry Saturday. Shortly before 7 p.m., McConnell presented another offer. He dropped the tax cut threshold to $550,000, put the sequester on the table, and offered a one-year extension of the jobless benefits as long as they were paid for through Social Security savings.
Rather than make a counteroffer, the Senate Democratic negotiating team said it was going home for the night. They reconvened Sunday morning — less than two days before the combination of tax hikes and spending cuts were due to kick in — but still had nothing new to present to McConnell.
Reid's inaction, officials said, was due in part to McConnell's insistence on keeping the tax cut threshold above $500,000, a level Obama refused to agree to.
A frustrated McConnell felt he had one last option. He called Biden, his longtime Senate colleague and frequent negotiating partner, and implored him to step in. Seeking to up the pressure on the White House, McConnell publicly announced that he was reaching out to Biden during remarks from the Senate floor during the rare Sunday session.
Until this late stage, Biden had played a secondary role in the "fiscal cliff" talks. He spent Saturday at his home in Wilmington, Del., and was planning to travel to the Caribbean island of St. Croix with his family for the New Year's holiday.
Obama and Reid both agreed that Biden, a 36-year veteran of the Senate, should take the lead. And once he did, negotiations with McConnell rapidly accelerated.
Around 8 p.m. Sunday, Obama, Biden and staffers met in the Oval Office to discuss what the vice president would deliver to McConnell as the administration's final offer.
The president set the upper limit for the tax cut extension at family income of $450,000. The sequester must be dealt with, he said, and any delay must be offset through a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases. And Obama demanded that the jobless benefits be extended for one year without a way to make up the $30 billion cost.