WASHINGTON: A deadline looming, President Barack Obama will meet with congressional leaders at the White House today in search of a compromise to avoid a year-end “fiscal cliff” of across-the-board tax increases and deep spending cuts.
The development capped a day of growing urgency in which Obama returned early from a Hawaiian vacation while lawmakers snarled across a partisan divide over responsibility for gridlock on key pocketbook issues. Speaker John Boehner called the House back into session for a highly unusual Sunday evening session.
Adding to the woes confronting the middle class was a pending spike of $2 per gallon or more in milk prices if lawmakers failed to pass farm legislation by year’s end.
Four days before the deadline, the White House disputed reports that Obama was sending lawmakers a scaled-down plan to avoid the fiscal cliff of tax increases and spending cuts.
Administration officials confirmed today’s meeting at the White House in a bare-bones announcement that said the president would “host a meeting.”
An aide to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said the Kentucky lawmaker “is eager to hear from the president.”
A spokesman for Boehner, R-West Chester, issued a statement that said the Ohio Republican would attend and “continue to stress that the House has already passed legislation to avert the entire fiscal cliff and now the Senate must act.”
While there was no guarantee of a compromise, Republicans and Democrats said privately elements of any agreement would likely include an extension of middle class tax cuts with increased rates at upper incomes as well as cancellation of the scheduled spending cuts. An extension of expiring unemployment benefits, a reprieve for doctors who face a cut in Medicare payments and possibly a short-term measure to prevent dairy prices from soaring could also become part of a year-end bill, they said.
That would postpone politically contentious disputes over spending cuts for 2013.
Top Senate leaders said they remain ready to seek a last-minute agreement. Yet there was no legislation pending and no sign of negotiations in either the House or the Senate on a bill to prevent the tax hikes and spending cuts that economists say could send the economy into a recession.
Far from conciliatory, the rhetoric was confrontational and at times unusually personal.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused Boehner of running a dictatorship, citing his refusal to call a vote on legislation to keep taxes steady for most while letting them rise at upper incomes. The bill “would pass overwhelmingly,” Reid predicted, and said the Ohio Republican won’t change his mind because he fears it might cost him re-election as speaker when the new Congress convenes next week.
Boehner seems “to care more about keeping his speakership than keeping the nation on a firm financial footing,” he said in remarks on the Senate floor.
A few hours later, McConnell expressed frustration and blamed the standoff on Obama and the Democrats. “Republicans have bent over backwards. We stepped way, way out of our comfort zone,” he said, referring to GOP offers to accept higher tax rates on some taxpayers.
“We wanted an agreement, but we had no takers. The phone never rang, and so here we are five days from the new year and we might finally start talking,” McConnell said.
Still, he warned: “Republicans aren’t about to write a blank check for anything the Democrats put forward just because we find ourselves at the edge of the cliff.”
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner, responded in a similar vein to Reid’s comments. “Harry Reid should talk less and legislate more if he wants to avert the fiscal cliff. The House has already passed legislation to do so,” he said, referring to a measure that extends existing cuts at all income levels.
Addressing the GOP rank and file by conference call, Boehner said the next move is up to the Senate, which has yet to act on House-passed bills to retain expiring tax cuts at all income levels and replace across-the-board spending cuts with targeted savings aimed largely at social programs.
“The House will take this action on whatever the Senate can pass — but the Senate must act,” he said, according to a participant in the call.
Boehner told Republican lawmakers the House would convene on Sunday evening. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., an ally of the speaker, quoted him as having said “he didn’t really intend to put on the floor something that would pass with all the Democratic votes and few of the Republican votes.”