WASHINGTON — With Congress in gridlock and stocks taking a fall, President Barack Obama issued a stern summons to lawmakers Friday to pass legislation to prevent year-end fiscal cliff tax increases on millions and avoid an imminent expiration of benefits for the long-term unemployed.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner said Obama himself must give more ground to reach an agreement. He added, "How we get there, God only knows."
Congress was shutting down, and Obama was headed to Hawaii to join his family for the holidays. But both men indicated they'd be back working to beat the fast-approaching Jan. 1 deadline with an agreement between Christmas and New Year's.
One day after House anti-tax rebels torpedoed Boehner's 'Plan B' legislation because it would raise rates on million-dollar-earners, Obama said he still wants a bill that requires the well-to-do to pay more. "Everybody's got to give a little bit in a sensible way" to prevent the economy from pitching over a recession-threatening fiscal cliff, he said.
He spoke after talking by phone with Boehner — architect of the failed House bill — and meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Boehner's office quickly issued a statement saying the Ohio Republican intends to return to the Capitol after Christmas "ready to find a solution that can pass both houses of Congress." At the same time, spokesman Brendan Buck said, "we remain hopeful he (Obama) is finally ready to get serious about averting the fiscal cliff."
At the White House, Obama projected optimism as he struggled to deal with the wreckage of weeks of failed negotiations and political maneuvering. "So call me a hopeless optimist, but I actually still think we can get it done," he said of an elusive deal.
The president spoke at the end of a day in which stocks tumbled and congressional leaders squabbled as the fiscal cliff drew implacably closer.
Boehner spoke in the morning, describing the increasingly tangled attempts to beat the Jan. 1 deadline and head off the perilous combination of across-the-board tax hikes and deep spending cuts.
Obama spoke shortly before a scheduled departure to join his family in Hawaii for Christmas, but in an indication of the importance of the issue, he told reporters he would be returning to the White House next week.
He said that in his negotiations with Boehner, he had offered to meet Republicans halfway when it came to taxes, and "more than halfway" toward their target for spending cuts.
He said he remains committed to working toward a goal of longer-term deficit reduction, but in the meantime he said quick action is needed to keep taxes from rising for tens of millions.
"Averting this middle class tax hike is not a Democratic responsibility or a Republican responsibility. With their votes, the American people have decided that government is a shared responsibility," he said, referring to a Congress where power is divided between the two parties.
"We move forward together or we don't move forward at all," he added.
Progress was invisible one day after House Republican rebels thwarted Boehner's plan to prevent tax increases for all but the nation's million-dollar earners. And while neither House is expected to meet again until after Christmas, officials in both parties said there was still time to prevent the changes from kicking in with the new year.
Yet they pointedly disagreed which side needed to make the first move.
"It's time for the speaker and all Republicans to return to the negotiating table," said Senate Democratic leader Reid.
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