Obama, Congress Back to Meet At The Edge of Fiscal Cliff

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Barack Obama and congressional leaders will discuss the looming fiscal cliff impasse Friday at the White House, spokespeople for the president and House Speaker John Boehner said.

The meeting will come days before the deadline to reach a deal that would prevent automatic tax increases and spending cuts, and after another day of Republicans and Democrats blaming each other for the stalemate.

White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage did not offer details on what will be discussed Friday. Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner, said his boss will try to push measures the GOP-led House has already passed and urge the Senate to act.

Both Obama and the Senate returned to Washington after a Christmas break. House leaders announced the chamber would reconvene Sunday and possibly stay in session until a new Congress is sworn in January 3rd.

Republicans insisted Thursday that before moving forward, they want more details on a scaled-back proposal first mentioned last Friday by Obama. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell said his side won't "write a blank check for anything Senate Democrats put forward just because we find ourselves at the edge of the cliff."

While a Senate Democratic leadership member said such details would be forthcoming, two White House officials said Obama will not send a fiscal cliff measure to Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, argued Republicans undermined a potentially major agreement over the past two years by refusing to compromise on their opposition to higher tax rates for the wealthy. He appeared doubtful there would be a deal by January 1st.

"I don't know, time-wise, how it can happen now," Reid said.

Economists warn the full impact of the fiscal cliff could spark another recession. In signs of the potential effect, the Consumer Confidence Index sank.

Hopes for a so-called grand bargain that would address the nation's chronic federal deficits and debt appeared dashed right now, leaving it to the White House and legislators to work out a less ambitious agreement.

The principal dispute continues to be over taxes, specifically the demand by Obama and Democrats to extend most of the tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush while allowing higher rates of the 1990s to return on top income brackets.

Obama campaigned for re-election on keeping the current lower tax rates on family income up to $250,000, which he argues would protect 98% of Americans and 97% of small businesses from rates that increase on income above that level.

Republicans oppose any kind of increase in tax rates, and Boehner suffered the political indignity last week of offering a compromise -- a $1 million threshold for the higher rates to kick in -- that his colleagues refused to support because it raised taxes and had no chance of passing the Senate.

With House Republicans unable to resolve the impasse, the focus shifted to the Democratic majority in the Senate to come up with a way forward that could pass the House and get signed into law by Obama.

Last Friday, the president proposed the scaled-back agreement that included his call for extending tax cuts on households with incomes under $250,000, as well as an extension of unemployment insurance.

McConnell told Obama in a telephone conversation Wednesday that he must see details of a proposal before he can figure out how to proceed on a Senate vote.

However, a senior Democratic Senate source said Thursday that McConnell must first work things out with House Speaker John Boehner before Democrats divulge more.

Such squabbling has left many doubtful there will be a deal before the fiscal cliff takes effect. Reid criticized Boehner's insistence the Senate act on House measures, saying both Democrats and Republicans have to agree on something together.

"We are in the same situation we've been in for a long time," Reid said. "We can't negotiate with ourselves."

Reid said Boehner wants to wait until after the new House re-elects him as speaker early next month before proceeding with a compromise -- one that will need support from both Democrats and Republicans to pass.

Boehner was "more concerned about his speakership than putting the country on firm financial footing," Reid claimed.

In response, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Reid should stop talking and instead take up legislation passed by the House to avert the fiscal cliff. This comes a day after Boehner's leadership team issued a statement saying the Senate must go first -- either by passing or amending the House-passed proposal -- and only then will they act.

Reid and Democrats reject the GOP proposals, which would extend all tax cuts passed under former President George W. Bush and revamp the spending cuts of the fiscal cliff. They've called them insufficient, shifting too much of the burden of deficit reduction on the middle class.

Instead, Reid called on Boehner to allow a vote on a Senate-passed measure to implement Obama's plan to extend tax cuts to the $250,000 threshold. However, McConnell rejected that possibility Thursday, as he sought to focus the debate on revising House-passed measures.

One possibility is the fiscal cliff takes effect and taxes go up, then Congress steps in to bring tax rates back down for at least some people -- allowing them to say they're lowering taxes, even if taxes for some wealthy people are higher in 2013 than they were in 2012. But retiring Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio calls that scenario little more than a political game.

"Nobody is willing to pull the trigger (because) everybody wants to play the blame game," LaTourette said. "This blame game is about to put us over the edge."

Obama and Democrats have leverage, based on the president's re-election last month and Democratic gains in the House and Senate in the new Congress. In addition, polls consistently show majority support for Obama's position on taxes.

The Gallup daily tracking poll released Wednesday showed 54% of respondents support Obama's handling of the fiscal cliff negotiations, compared with 26% who approve of Boehner's performance.

"We believe very strongly a reasonable package can get majorities in both (chambers)," a senior White House official said. "The only thing that would prevent it is if Sen. McConnell and Speaker Boehner don't cooperate."