Leaders Meet at White House in Urgent Bid for Fiscal Deal

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WASHINGTON -- President Obama and Congressional leaders met for make-or-break talks on the fiscal crisis at the White House on Friday as they struggled to find a way to head off a looming series of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts to domestic and military programs.

The president was scheduled to make a public statement at 5:45 p.m. Eastern.

After meeting for just over an hour at the White House, the four Congressional leaders -- Speaker John A. Boehner; Representative Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader; Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader; and Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader -- emerged, one by one, into the chilly dusk. They avoided reporters and cameramen who were waiting and took swiftly to the S.U.V.'s to exit the White House grounds. Mr. Reid was the last to depart, and did not look up at reporters who shouted questions at him from their perch about 50 yards away.

This was the first time the group has met together in weeks to try to reach a resolution as Congress headed toward a rare New Year's Eve session.

Upon returning to the Capitol, Ms. Pelosi told reporters that the talks were candid and constructive. Mr. McConnell entered the Capitol and headed to the Senate floor where votes were occurring and was immediately surrounded by his fellow Republicans. He spoke to them at length.

The meeting between Mr. Obama and the top lawmakers started with the president reiterating his demand for an extension of tax cuts on incomes below $250,000.

That opening offer lowered expectations on Capitol Hill that a breakthrough could be pending, but behind the scenes, talks continued, focusing on a possibly higher threshold of $400,000. Senator Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said sentiment is "gelling" around a new offer, and a source familiar with the negotiations said the president would ask Republican and Democratic leaders what proposal could win majority support in the House and Senate.

The source said that the president would use the opportunity to make the case for a proposal that he believed could pass both the House and Senate, one that included extending lower tax rates for household income of $250,000 or less and an extension of unemployment insurance for two million Americans who are about to lose their benefits. The official said that the president intended to ask the Congressional leaders for a counterproposal or to allow an up-or-down vote on his outlined plan.

The plan was in its early stages and far from being accepted. But Congressional officials say staff-level talks between the White House and the Senate Republican leader centered around a deal that would extend all the expiring Bush income tax cuts up to $400,000 in income.

Some spending cuts would pay for a provision putting off a sudden cut in payments to medical providers treating Medicare patients. The deal would also prevent an expansion of the alternative minimum tax to keep it from hitting more of the middle class. It would extend a raft of already expired business tax cuts, like the research and development credit, and would renew tax cuts for the working poor and the middle class included in the 2009 stimulus law. The estate tax would stay at current levels.

It would not stop automatic spending cuts from hitting military and domestic programs beginning on Wednesday, nor would it raise the statutory borrowing limit, which will be reached on Monday. Congressional aides said those issues would be dealt with early next year in yet another showdown.

White House officials denied that any such offer was developing and said that the president was sticking with his insistence that household income only up to $250,000 would be protected from tax increases.

While neither side was confident of any agreement, some top lawmakers said there was still a chance of a breakthrough that could at least avoid the most far-reaching economic effects. "I am hopeful that there will be a deal that avoids the worst parts of the fiscal cliff; namely, taxes' going up on middle-class people," Senator Charles E. Schumer, the No. 3 Senate Democrat, said Friday on the "Today" show on NBC. "I think there can be. And I think the odds are better than people think that they could be."

Democrats from high-tax, high-wealth states have pressed the White House and their leaders to accept a threshold higher than the president's $250,000, but they appear ready to accept anything that can pass.

"I have a very practical standard to apply: whatever threshold we need to avoid the fiscal cliff," said Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent from Connecticut.

Much of the legislative attention was focused on Mr. McConnell as Democrats pushed him to provide assurances that Republicans would not use procedural tactics to block any measure that the Senate might consider. House Republican leaders have already said they would be willing to consider whatever legislation the Senate could pass when the House convenes beginning Sunday afternoon. If Republicans chose to erect hurdles to any legislation, Congress might not have sufficient time to advance a measure before the deadline on Tuesday.

Mr. McConnell was well aware of the Democratic efforts to put the onus on him. "Make no mistake: the only reason Democrats have been trying to deflect attention onto me and my colleagues over the past few weeks is that they don't have a plan of their own that could get bipartisan support," he said on Thursday.

But he also said he was willing to review any proposal that would come from the White House and then "we'll decide how best to proceed."

"Hopefully there is still time for an agreement of some kind that saves the taxpayers from a wholly preventable economic crisis," he added.

As it awaited a proposal on tax and spending issues, the Senate did make some progress on other legislation, sending the president a renewal of antiterrorism surveillance laws and advancing some relief for states and communities hit by Hurricane Sandy this year.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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