Private talks between President Obama and top congressional leaders in search of a deal to avoid the year-end “fiscal cliff” are accelerating, officials said Monday, even as the president began ramping up pressure on Republicans to extend tax cuts for the middle class.
Obama telephoned House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) over the weekend, in a sign that high-level negotiations are advancing with only weeks to go before an automatic series of spending cuts and tax hikes starts to hit nearly every American.
Boehner, meanwhile, was laying plans Monday for top Republicans to meet with Erskine Bowles, a chief of staff in the Bill Clinton administration who also has close ties to Obama’s White House.
Ahead of the Wednesday meeting, GOP aides noted that Bowles offered a debt-reduction plan last fall in line with Republican principles. That plan called for $800 billion in fresh revenue through an overhaul of the tax code and significant spending cuts, including major changes to Medicare and other federal health programs.
“People in both parties agree we need a ‘balanced approach to deal’ with our deficit and debt and help our economy create jobs,” Boehner said. “We look forward to talking to Mr. Bowles and [others advocating a debt deal] about their ideas to avert the fiscal cliff without tax hikes that target small businesses and cost jobs.”
In recent days, other Republicans — such as Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) and Rep. Peter T. King (N.Y.) — have voiced support for a deal that includes additional tax revenue and dismissed an anti-tax pledge circulated by GOP activist Grover Norquist. Norquist has long been a potent force in GOP politics, admonishing Republicans who express any openness to increasing tax collections and organizing opposition to them.
Still, a wide gap remains between Obama and the Republicans on taxes and changes to federal retirement programs. Resolving those differences are key to avoiding the year-end tax hikes and spending cuts, which threaten to suck $500 billion out of the economy next year and snuff out the recovery.
Democrats remained Monday in a trust-but-verify posture toward Republican talk of softening opposition to increased taxes. “We need more specifics. We haven’t seen them yet,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) told reporters Monday, while still welcoming the rhetorical shift. “It’s not where they were before the election,” he said.
Talks began 10 days ago with a meeting between Obama and congressional leaders at the White House. That session ended with the four congressional leaders — Boehner, Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — standing side by side and expressing optimism about a potential deal. But continuing work by staff up to the Thanksgiving weekend and on Monday has not yet made enough progress for a second meeting between Obama and the congressional leaders to be scheduled.