President Barack Obama and congressional leaders will discuss the looming fiscal cliff impasse Friday at the White House, aiming for a last-minute deal to stave off automatic tax increases and spending cuts.
The 3 p.m. meeting -- which will include Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, House Speaker John Boeher, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell -- will come days before the deadline to reach a deal, and after another day of Republicans and Democrats blaming each other for the stalemate.
White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage confirmed the meeting, but did not elaborate. Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck and McConnell spokesman Don Stewart both tried to put the onus on their rival political party -- in the former case urging the Democratic-led Senate to pass a bill approved by the GOP majority in the House, and in the latter asking for a detailed proposal from Obama.
Earlier Thursday, 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.
Reid, the Nevada Democrat, argued that 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. Hours before Friday's meeting was announced, he was doubtful there would be a deal by January 1.
"I don't know, time-wise, how it can happen now," Reid said.
Democrats, GOP challenge each other to act first
The Consumer Confidence Index sank Thursday amid growing fears the sides won't come together. If they don't, economists have warned it could cause another recession.
At the least, hopes for an imminent so-called grand bargain that would address 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 GOP colleagues refused to support because it raised taxes and had no chance of passing the Senate.
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 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."
Both sides play the 'blame game'
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 is "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, an assertion Buck repeated Thursday evening.
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 deficit reduction burden 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.