President Barack Obama and the top Republican in Congress have opened face-to-face talks with just three weeks remaining before the deadline to back away from the "fiscal cliff" — across-the-board tax increases and dramatic spending cuts that could push the fragile U.S. economy back into recession.
The White House meeting Sunday was the first private negotiation session between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner since the Nov. 6 election and could mark a turning point in the stalemate over the U.S. budget crisis. It coincides with moves by growing numbers of rank-and-file Republicans toward with what they called pragmatic ideas to break the stalemate. Obama and Boehner agreed not to release details of their weekend conversation, but aides said it proved lines of communication remain open.
Obama meets with auto workers
Seeking again to rally popular support for his position, Obama was heading to Michigan on Monday to speak to auto workers at a plant outside Detroit. It's the latest in a string of campaign-style appearances Obama has held in recent weeks to build on his campaign promise to tackle the budget deficit by raising tax rates on the richest Americans.
While Republicans have long opposed that approach, some Republican lawmakers are suggesting the party relent on taxes in order to win concessions from the president on changes to benefits programs.
Still, Boehner's office indicated Monday that he wasn't ready to take that step.
"The Republican offer made last week remains the Republican offer," said Brendan Buck, a Boehner spokesman. He was referring to a Republican plan that offered $800 billion in new revenue over the next decade through reducing or eliminating unspecified tax breaks on upper-income earners, but not by raising tax rates.
Business leaders, tired of Washington's partisan bickering creating uncertainty in the marketplace, emphasized the need to make a deal before the end of the year.
Jeff Immelt, GE's chief executive and head of a presidential advisory council on competitiveness, said increased revenue will have to be part of a deal.
"The millions of people that work for us, their lives are in flux. And this is incredibly critical we get this done now," Immelt said in remarks aired Monday on CBS.
'Fiscal cliff' explained
The "fiscal cliff" refers to rate increases that would affect every worker who pays federal taxes, as well as spending cuts that would begin to bite defence and domestic programs alike. Economists say the combination carries the risk of a new recession at a time the economy is still struggling to recover fully from the worst slowdown in decades.
The country faces the fiscal cliff because tax rate cuts that were put in place during the administration of former President George W. Bush expire at the end of the year. The pending across-the-board reductions in government spending, impacting everything from social programs to the military, were put in place last year as an incentive to both parties to find spending reductions. That legislation grew out of the two parties' inability in 2011 to agree to a tax and spending program that would have taken a big bite out of the deficit.
Compounding the likely devastating effects of failure to agree on a means of avoiding the fiscal cliff will be the coincidental expiration of extended government benefits for the long-term unemployed and the expiration of temporary cuts in the payroll tax that funds the government's Social Security pension program.
The White House meeting suggests there may be pressure on Boehner to side with a number of Republicans who think the party should change how it approaches negotiations with Obama after the bruising national election that left Democrats in charge of the White House and Senate.
"There is a growing group of folks looking at this and realizing that we don't have a lot of cards as it relates to the tax issue before year end," Republican Sen. Bob Corker told Fox News.
If Republicans agree to Obama's plan to increase tax rates on the top 2 per cent of Americans, Corker said, "the focus then shifts to entitlements, and maybe it puts us in a place where we actually can do something that really saves the nation."
Tax hikes unpopular
But such ideas face an uphill battle. Many House Republicans say they will not vote for tax rate hikes under any circumstances, fearing the Republican leadership could lose leverage in the negotiations if it raises the rate on upper-income earners without getting anything substantial in return like entitlement reform. They have targeted Social Security and Medicare, the expensive health insurance program for older Americans.
Democratic leaders have suggested they are unwilling to do any work on those spending programs in the three weeks left before the fiscal cliff would be triggered.
"I just don't think we can do it in a matter of days here before the end of the year," Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin said of Medicare reform, in an interview Sunday on NBC.
Obama's plan would raise $1.6 trillion in revenue over 10 years, partly by letting decade-old tax cuts on the country's highest earners expire at the end of the year. He would continue the Bush-era tax cuts for everyone except individuals earning more than $200,000 and couples making more than $250,000. The highest rates on top-paid Americans would rise from 33 per cent and 35 per cent to 36 per cent and 39.6 per cent, respectively.
The Republican plan also would cut spending by $1.4 trillion, including by trimming annual increases in Social Security payments and raising the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67.