WASHINGTON (AP) — Amid partisan bluster, top members of Congress and President Barack Obama were holding out slim hopes for a limited fiscal deal before the new year. But even as congressional leaders prepared to convene at the White House, there were no signs that legislation palatable to both sides was taking shape.
The Friday afternoon meeting among congressional leaders and the president — their first since Nov. 16 — stood as a make-or-break moment for negotiations to avoid across-the-board first of the year tax increases and deep spending cuts.
Obama called for the meeting as top lawmakers alternately cast blame on each other while portraying themselves as open to a reasonable last-minute bargain.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid all but conceded that any effort at this late date was a long shot. "I don't know timewise how it can happen now," he said.
For Obama, the 11th-hour scramble represented a test of how he would balance the strength derived from his re-election with his avowed commitment to compromise. Despite early talk of a grand bargain between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner that would reduce deficits by more than $2 trillion, the expectations were now far less ambitious.
Although there were no guarantees of a deal, Republicans and Democrats said privately that any agreement would likely include an extension of middle-class tax cuts with increased rates at upper incomes, an Obama priority that was central to his re-election campaign. The deal would also likely put off the scheduled spending cuts. Such a year-end bill could also include 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, officials said.
To get there, Obama and Reid would have to propose a package that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell would agree not to block with procedural steps that require 60 votes to overcome.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said he still thinks a deal could be struck.
The Democrat told NBC's "Today" show Friday that he believes the "odds are better than people think."
Schumer said he based his optimism on indications that McConnell has gotten "actively engaged" in the talks.
Appearing on the same show, Republican Sen. John Thune noted the meeting scheduled later Friday at the White House, saying "it's encouraging that people are talking."
But Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., predicted that "the worst-case scenario" could emerge from Friday's talks.
"We will kick the can down the road," he said on "CBS This Morning."
"We'll do some small deal and we'll create another fiscal cliff to deal with the fiscal cliff," he said. Corker complained that there has been "a total lack of courage, lack of leadership," in Washington.
Speaking on the Senate floor Thursday, McConnell cautioned: "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."
Nevertheless, he said he told Obama in a phone call late Wednesday that "we're all happy to look at whatever he proposes."
If a deal were to pass the Senate, Boehner would have to agree to take it to the floor in the Republican-controlled House.
Boehner discussed the fiscal cliff with Republican members in a conference call Thursday and advised them that the House would convene Sunday evening. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., an ally of the speaker, said Boehner told the lawmakers that "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."