Obama calls leaders to fiscal cliff meeting
White House gathering seen as last hope for deal before Dec. 31 deadline
WASHINGTON • U.S. President Barack Obama has asked congressional leaders to convene Friday at the White House for last-minute talks on a “fiscal cliff ” deal that avoids automatic tax increases and broad spending cuts that threaten the economy’s nascent recovery, the Senate’s top Republican announced Thursday.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said the leaders are expected to meet with the president just four days before the government goes over the so-called fiscal cliff if Congress and Obama don’t act.
The meeting would be the first time Obama has huddled with all of the top members of Congress since Nov. 16 and would represent that last hope for a deal before the new year. Obama spoke to each leader individually Wednesday before returning early from his Christmas holiday in Hawaii.
With the Senate reconvening Thursday night, Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Democrats criticized House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner for not calling House members back to work. Reid said Boehner cared more about retaining his leadership position than resolving the bitter partisan fight over reining in deficit spending by raising taxes for some wealthy earners — the Democrats’ priority — and cutting some popular benefit programs, as demanded by Republicans.
The House will be back in session Sunday evening, said officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, saying no public announcement had yet been made. The officials said that the Republican leadership informed the party’s rank and file of the plan to meet during a conference call Thursday.
The issue has been Obama’s first test of muscle after his reelection in November. At stake are Bush-era tax cuts that expire on Dec. 31 and revert to the higher rates in place during the administration of Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Nearly all Americans and branches of the federal government, including the military, would be affected.
The parties are also arguing about cutting entitlement programs such as Social Security pensions. The White House said Obama, before leaving Hawaii, called Boehner, Reid, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and House Democrat Leader Nancy Pelosi. The White House statement said the president got an update on the “fiscal negotiations,” but offered no detail on who was negotiating and whether those talks were getting anywhere.
The questions hanging over Washington centre on whether Reid would offer a specific piece of legislation, whether Republicans would allow it to proceed to a vote on the Senate floor and, if the Senate bill passed, whether Boehner would then call House lawmakers back to Washington to vote on it. All those issues remained unresolved, and success before the end of the year appeared a long shot at best.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told Congress on Wednesday that the government would hit its $16.4-trillion borrowing limit on Monday, the final day of the year. He said he would take “extraordinary measures as authorized by law” to postpone a government default. But he said uncertainty over the outcome of the fiscal cliff negotiations made it difficult to determine how much time those measures would buy.