"Fiscal cliff" deal still possible despite "chasm," Durbin says

(CBS News) Sometimes it takes an imposing deadline, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said today on "Face the Nation," to get legislation through the hoops of Congress. And while there remains a "chasm" between Democrats and Republicans attempting to navigate a last-ditch effort past the so-called "fiscal cliff," he added, there's still a chance an 11th-hour deal could go through before the first of the year.

"It takes a lot of sweat, and a lot of worry," Durbin said. "And people reach a point and say, 'Alright, let's try to find a way through this.' It has happened before; it could happen again."

Durbin, the second highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said "two very basic issues" are delaying an agreement among the split body to avert a series of spending cuts and tax hikes that could hurl the U.S. economy into a dangerous recession. The biggest disagreement is at what income threshold the Bush-era tax cuts should be allowed to expire. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has proposed the rate increase for Americans making more than $1 million a year; President Obama and Democrats are arguing the same for those making over $250,000 a year. The second, Durbin said, is what portion of wealthy Americans who pass away should be spared paying extra for estate taxes.

"From the Republican side, those remain their highest priorities," Durbin said. "We see it differently: What's at stake as far as we're concerned are 98 percent of the American families, working families, and middle-income families, who shouldn't see their taxes go up Jan. 1."

To that end, if no deal is reached today, CBS News Congressional Correspondent Nancy Cordes said, Senate Democrats would then introduce their own plan that caps the current tax rates at Americans making $250,000 or less, extends long-term unemployment benefits, and possibly introduces spending cuts to push off the sequester for six months or a year. It's the most probable path, Cordes said she's gathered from her sources.

Both Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., she said, "seemed pretty resigned to the fact that the most likely scenario is, Democrats are going to bring up their own package as early as tonight, or more likely tomorrow, and then we're just going to have to see what happens." While "there was a good-faith effort on the part of the leaders to try to get this done," Cordes added, "at the end of the day, it's just too difficult for ... most Republicans to have their fingerprint on a plan that eliminates tax cuts for some people. This is just an easier way for them."

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who along with Durbin is a member of the "Gang of Eight" senators assigned to deal with the federal deficit, said whether he would support a proposal like that "depends on what the deal is, and what's in it."

Meanwhile, Coburn said he sees "a couple of advantages" to going over the "cliff," among "a lot of disadvantages."

"One of the advantages is the American people [would] see what the real cost of their government is - the actual, real cost for the very wealthy," Coburn said. While "I've been out there for a long time saying those that are making more ought to contribute more," he added, "...what people don't realize is, the well connected, well heeled in this country take most of the advantages of all the deductions and all the giveaways in the tax code. Unless you reform the tax code in a way that will create capital formation, you're not going to do that - raising taxes doesn't do that."

Still, the tax issue continues to plague negotiations, CBS News White House Correspondent Major Garrett said. The president's concession to raise the tax hike threshold to $400,000, he added, was shattered when Congress began focusing on a shorter-term fix to get past the Jan. 1 deadline.

"You get away from the desert shield, to the smaller, patch arrangement where we don't talk about the debt ceiling," Garrett said, "they're not interested in make those kinds of concessions. They would be willing to make them if there was a larger deal with greater scope and longer-term implications for the federal deficit. Without that, they're going to play the hard politics game and say to Republicans, 'We dare you to go over the cliff and have... most of the political responsibility for doing so.'"

Durbin acknowledged: "There's work to be done, and not much time left."

  • Lindsey Boerma On Twitter»

    Lindsey Boerma is senior video producer for CBSNews.com.

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