WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Friday tried to jumpstart stalled talks over how to avert the fiscal cliff, urging congressional leaders to craft a less ambitious deal that keeps tax rates intact for the middle class and extends jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.
Obama made a seven-minute pitch in the White House briefing room after talking with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev..
“Call me a hopeless optimist, but I actually still think we can get it done,” said Obama, who said he hoped a brief Christmas break would allow lawmakers to “cool off,” enjoy some Christmas cookies and eggnog and “the company of loved ones” while thinking about obligations back in Washington.
“Think about the hardship that so many Americans endure if Congress does nothing at all,” he said. “There are real world consequences to what we do here.”
Bush-era tax rates are slated to expire in a week and a half, and automatic spending cuts are due to take effect Jan. 2, but Obama said he hopes lawmakers will return to Washington next week to meet the deadline. He and the first family were to leave for Christmas in Hawaii late Friday, but Obama – who had planned to stay in his home state until after the New Year, told reporters, “because we didn’t get this done, I will see you next week.”
Obama said his package would set the "groundwork for further work on both growth and deficit reduction." But left undone would be efforts to address the growing deficit and tackle tax reform and entitlement spending. There also would be no resolution to raising the debt ceiling.
The "fallback plan" extends tax cuts for families up to $250,000, extends unemployment insurance, and delays the so-called sequester while lawmakers negotiate.
Nonetheless, Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner, said that although Obama had “failed to offer any solution that passes the test of balance,” Boehner would return to Washington after Christmas “ready to find a solution that can pass both houses of Congress.”
Obama’s plea for a less ambitious package – far less than the grand deficit reduction bargain he and Boehner have sought for weeks – came after 24 hours of turmoil and uncertainty. Boehner’s plan to continue tax rates for all but million-dollar earners could not get enough Republican votes to succeed and was pulled from consideration Thursday.
Obama, echoing the view of congressional leaders, Friday still thought a deal was possible, particularly if members of Congress would listen to their constituents.
“The American people are a lot more sensible and a lot more thoughtful, and much more willing to compromise and give and sacrifice and act responsibly than their elected representatives are,” Obama said.
The president and Democratic leaders have been pushing a plan to continue the Bush-era rates for individuals earning less than $200,000 and families making less than $250,000.
They also want the extended jobless benefits, which expire at the end of this year, to continue, or an estimated 2 million people will lose the aid. Many Republicans insist the price tag be offset with spending cuts.
Reid on Friday urged the House to take up the middle-class tax bill.