U.S. President Barack Obama said on Friday Senate leaders are working on a bipartisan plan that would pull the nation back from the ruinous fiscal cliff.
The hope is that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will have something ready by Sunday.
However, Obama said at a press conference after an hourlong meeting with congressional leaders, "[I]f an agreement isn’t reached in time between Senator Reid and Senator McConnell, then I will urge Senator Reid to bring to the floor a basic package for an up-or-down vote –- one that protects the middle class from an income tax hike, extends the vital lifeline of unemployment insurance to two million Americans looking for a job, and lays the groundwork for future cooperation on more economic growth and deficit reduction," according to a transcript published by the White House.
"I still want to get this done," Obama said. "It’s the right thing to do for our families, for our businesses, and for our entire economy. But the hour for immediate action is here. It is now."
With just a few days left before about $600 billion in federal spending cuts and tax increases begin to automatically kick in on Tuesday, the president said he remains "modestly optimistic" a deal can be forged in time.
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After returning from his Christmas break, Obama summoned Reid and McConnell, along with House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for the high-stakes make-or-break talk at the White House. It was a last-ditch effort on the part of the president to arrive at some sort of narrow agreement that would avoid the draconian measures that would likely send the country's economy back into recession and increase its unemployment rate to about 9 percent.
"The America people are watching what we do here," Obama said. "Obviously, their patience is already thin."
Lawmakers have been seeking a bipartisan solution to the fiscal-cliff problem since mid-November.
A newly re-elected Obama has to date kept a campaign promise that he would seek to end tax cuts for wealthy Americans as part of the balanced approach he envisions would help deal with the nation’s fiscal woes. He initially proposed getting $1.6 trillion in new revenue through taxing higher-income earners, while requesting lawmakers to extend the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for families making less than $250,000 annually.
More recently, Obama said he was willing to compromise on the deal, but wouldn’t accept any proposal without a tax increase. Stubborn House Republicans refused any tax hike because of their no-tax pledge. The president went back to the table with the tax threshold at $400,000 and a willingness to reduce cost-of-living increases in Social Security and other government-run programs. But that wasn’t enough for Republicans, and Boehner left the negotiating table to try and push through a “Plan B” alternative he crafted.
Plan B included a proposal to increase taxes on those with incomes in excess of $1 million. However, that a tax hike was even considered caused the measure to lack support. The bill was pulled last week before it went up for a House vote, leaving the GOP with hardly any alternative but to go back to the drawing board with Democrats.
The House is expected to reconvene on Sunday.
The prospects that a deal would be struck grew even dimmer this week when Reid on Thursday said it looks like the nation was going to miss the Dec. 31 deadline and go over the cliff. Days away from the cliff dive, they two parties are still nowhere near a compromise, with both sides trading personal attacks.
Reid accused Boehner of caring “more about keeping his speakership than about keeping the nation on firm financial footing” and that he was waiting until re-election to his leadership position to start getting serious about negotiations.
Boehner’s office told Reid to do less talking and more focusing on legislation. The speaker’s people pointed out that the House has already passed legislation to avert the cliff.
“Senate Democrats have not,” Boehner's representative Brendan Buck told the media.
Democrats countered, saying they have a bill that will extend tax cuts for middle-class Americans and businesses that the House should act on.
In the end, Boehner may bring any bill the Senate passes before his chamber, even with amendments, and see what happens thereafter.
While it appears any kind of a so-called grand bargain is unlikely at this point, Obama wants both chambers to work together for the good of the nation, to prevent what he said would be a "politically self-inflicted wound to our economy."