WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama urged Congress on Saturday to at least pass a short-term measure that would avert major tax increases for most Americans in the new year while continuing to press for a comprehensive deal to avoid the imminent fiscal cliff of severe budget cuts and tax increases.
"Congress can prevent it from happening, if they act now," Mr. Obama said in his weekly radio address. "Leaders in Congress are working on a way to prevent this tax hike on the middle class, and I believe we may be able to reach an agreement that can pass both houses in time."
Mr. Obama added that "if an agreement isn't reached in time, then I'll urge the Senate to hold an up-or-down vote on a basic package that protects the middle class from an income tax hike, extends vital unemployment insurance for Americans looking for a job and lays the groundwork for future progress on more economic growth and deficit reduction."
In the Republicans' radio address Saturday, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said the onus was on Mr. Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to formulate a deal that can muster bipartisan support.
"We still can avoid going over the fiscal cliff if the president and the Democrat-controlled Senate step forward this week and work with Republicans to solve this problem and solve it now," Mr. Blunt said.
Senior aides to Mr. Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., were planning to meet Saturday afternoon to resume negotiations. No further announcements were likely until this afternoon when leaders would present the results of the talks to their respective party caucuses, a Democratic aide said.
Mr. Reid was not scheduled to be at the Capitol on Saturday, but he was keeping in close touch with staffers about the negotiations, according to senior aides.
The main sticking points in the talks remain where to set the threshold for extending the George W. Bush era tax cuts and lowering the exemption on estate taxes.
The White House announced Saturday that Mr. Obama will appear on "Meet the Press" this morning. It will be only the second time that Mr. Obama has been on the NBC News show as president -- the last being in 2009 during the health care debate. Today's appearance allows him to keep the pressure on Congress as talks on a deal enter their final hours.
Senate leaders appeared to be on the verge of an agreement Friday that would let taxes rise on the wealthiest households while protecting the vast majority of Americans from historic tax hikes set to hit in January.
As the Senate began haggling over critical details, the emerging deal faced an uncertain fate in the House, where Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, failed just one week ago to persuade his adamantly anti-tax caucus to let taxes rise even for millionaires.
Still, on Friday, Mr. Obama pronounced himself "modestly optimistic" at a brief news conference at the White House. The ordinarily dour Mr. McConnell said he was "hopeful and optimistic." And Mr. Reid immediately began preparing Senate Democrats for what could be a difficult vote.
"Whatever we come up with is going to be imperfect. Some people aren't going to like it. Some people will like it less," Mr. Reid said on the Senate floor before dozens of silent and attentive senators from both parties. But "we're going to do the best we can for ... the country that's waiting for us to make a decision."
According to people briefed on the talks, the developing package would protect nearly 30 million taxpayers from paying the alternative minimum tax for the first time and keep unemployment benefits flowing to 2 million people who otherwise would be cut off in January.
The deal also would likely halt a steep cut in Medicare reimbursements set to hit doctors in January and preserve popular tax breaks for both businesses and individuals, such as those for research and college tuition.
But the two sides were still at odds over a crucial issue: how to define the wealthy. Mr. Obama has proposed letting tax rates rise on income over $250,000 a year. Senate Republicans have in recent days expressed interest in a compromise that would lift that threshold to $400,000 a year, an offer Mr. Obama made to Mr. Boehner before the speaker abruptly broke off negotiations last week.
In addition to its political appeal, the $400,000 threshold has practical benefits, Republican aides said: It would limit tax increases to the very top tax bracket rather than the top two brackets. And it would avoid a quirk of the tax code that would cause rates to rise more dramatically for those earning between $250,000 and $400,000 than for households with much larger incomes.
The two sides also had yet to agree on another politically sensitive issue: how to tax inherited estates. Republicans -- and many Senate Democrats from states with large family farms -- want to maintain the current tax structure, which exempts estates worth up to $5 million and taxes those above that level at 35 percent. Mr. Obama has proposed a $3.5 million exemption and a tax rate of 45 percent, a proposal that is far more acceptable to liberal Democrats.
There was also no agreement on how to handle roughly $100 billion in automatic spending cuts that are scheduled for the Pentagon and other federal departments in the fiscal year that ends in September.
At a White House meeting Friday, where Mr. Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., joined Mr. Obama and the Senate leaders, Mr. Boehner insisted that House Republicans would refuse to delay or cancel the cuts, known as "sequestration," without fresh spending cuts to replace them. Democrats would find that proposition hard to accept.
By the end of the meeting, according to a House Republican briefed on the session, "it was clear that the sequester is not likely to be addressed in any immediate agreement."
Many Republicans are alarmed by the prospect of deep cuts to the military, which outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said would be devastating to national security.
Mr. Obama and Senate leaders have also concluded that time is too short to work on a package of significant cuts to federal health and retirement programs, the top priority of many Republicans. Without major changes to those programs, the deal will not include an agreement to raise the legal limit on government borrowing, setting up another fierce battle over the debt limit in the next two months.
Threading all the legislative needles now falls to Mr. Reid and Mr. McConnell, who pledged to work together to craft a package that can win significant bipartisan support.
If that effort fails, Mr. Obama said, he has asked Mr. Reid to press ahead with a bare-bones bill that would keep the president's campaign promise to raise taxes on income over $250,000 and extend emergency unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed.
Either way, the wheels are now in motion for the Senate to vote on New Year's Eve, Senate aides said. If that vote were successful, the Republican-controlled House would have mere hours to decide whether to approve the legislation or take the blame for letting taxes rise next month for nearly 90 percent of Americans -- and for potentially sparking a new recession.
Rank-and-file House members, who won't return to the Capitol until Sunday evening, were anxiously awaiting word on the developments from afar. Many had hoped for a package that would cut trillions of dollars from the federal deficit, a goal that would not be met by the stripped-down package under construction in the Senate.
First Published December 30, 2012 5:00 AM