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White House meeting a last stab at a fiscal deal

By Jim Kuhnhenn

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 28 2012 11:13 a.m. MST

President Barack Obama waves to reporters as he steps off the Marine One helicopter and walks on the South Lawn at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012, as he returns early from his Hawaii vacation for meetings on the fiscal cliff. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Charles Dharapak, AP

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama was preparing to present a limited fiscal proposal to congressional leaders at a White House meeting Friday, a make-or-break moment for negotiations to avoid across-the-board tax increases and deep spending cuts at the first of the year.

Lawmakers and White House officials held out a slim hope for a deal before the new year, but it remained unclear whether congressional passage of legislation palatable to both sides was even possible.

The Friday afternoon meeting among congressional leaders and the president — their first since Nov. 16 — was likely to center on which income thresholds would face higher tax rates, extending unemployment insurance, and preventing a cut in Medicare payments to doctors, among other issues.

For Obama, the eleventh-hour scramble represented a test of how he would balance strength derived from his re-election against an avowed commitment to compromise in the face of divided government. Despite early talk of a grand bargain between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner that would reduce deficits by more than $2 trillion, the expectations were now far less ambitious.

Although there were no guarantees of a deal, Republicans and Democrats said privately that any agreement would likely include an extension of middle-class tax cuts with increased rates at upper incomes, an Obama priority that was central to his re-election campaign.

A key question was whether Obama would agree to abandon his insistence during the campaign on raising taxes on households earning more than $250,000 a year and instead accept a $400,000 threshold like the one he offered in negotiations with Boehner. Another was whether Republicans would seek a higher income threshold.

The deal would also likely put off the scheduled spending cuts. Such a year-end bill could also include an extension of expiring unemployment benefits, a reprieve for doctors who face a cut in Medicare payments and possibly a short-term measure to prevent dairy prices from soaring, officials said.

If a deal was not possible, it would become evident at Friday's White House meeting, and Obama and the leaders would leave a resolution for the next Congress to address in January.

Such a delay could unnerve the stock market, which edged lower for a fifth day Friday amid worries that lawmakers would fail to reach a budget deal. Economists say that if the tax increases are allowed to hit most Americans and if the spending cuts aren't scaled back, the recovering but fragile economy could sustain a traumatizing shock.

Obama called for the meeting as top lawmakers on Thursday alternately cast blame on each other while portraying themselves as open to a reasonable last-minute bargain.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid all but conceded that any effort at this late date was a long shot. "I don't know timewise how it can happen now," he said.

The No. 2 Senate GOP leader, Jon Kyl of Arizona, said it is "pretty unlikely" that Senate Republicans would agree to legislation averting the fiscal cliff if it wouldn't pass muster in the House.

"If you know the House isn't going to do something, why go through the charade?" he told reporters. "That becomes political gamesmanship."

Obama and Reid, D-Nev., would have to propose a package that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell would agree not to block with procedural steps that require 60 votes to overcome.

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said he still thinks a deal could be struck.

The Democrat told NBC's "Today" show Friday that he believes the "odds are better than people think."

Schumer said he based his optimism on indications that McConnell has gotten "actively engaged" in the talks.

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