Ottawa Citizen

Obama calls lead­ers to fis­cal cliff meet­ing

White House gath­er­ing seen as last hope for deal be­fore Dec. 31 dead­line

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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.

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