WASHINGTON – Their deadline rushing closer, President Barack Obama and the top four congressional leaders announced plans to meet today to try to pick up the pieces of the shattered budget talks, even as they spent Thursday positioning themselves to dodge the blame for failure.
Expectations for a breakthrough at the White House huddle were low, but it was clear the president and the lawmakers felt obligated to at least appear to be pushing for a solution right up to the Dec. 31 deadline, when all taxpayers will see their income taxes rise if a deal cannot be reached.
The announcement of the afternoon session came late Thursday, after a full day of public posturing and finger-pointing over both the tax increases and widespread spending cuts due to take effect in the new year.
Before returning to Washington from an abbreviated Christmas vacation in Hawaii, Obama placed late-night phone calls Wednesday to the leaders. The outreach was most notable for including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who would play a key role in any deal.
“We’ll see what the president has to propose,” McConnell said early Thursday, as he drew a hard line against yielding to the president’s priorities. “Republicans aren’t about to write a blank check for anything Senate Democrats put forward just because we find ourselves at the edge of the cliff.” House Speaker John A. Boehner, wary of House Republicans being seen as contributing to the standoff, told his troops Thursday to return to the capital from their holiday recess, announcing that his chamber would resume business on Sunday. The timing suggested the Ohio Republican wanted his members in position to vote on legislation coming from the Senate – or at least appear to be working in the final hours as a way of shielding themselves from political blowback as they blamed the other side.
Such was the nature of most action on Thursday: As the fiscal cliff neared, both sides appeared to look simultaneously for an emergency brake and political cover.
Today’s White House session, which will include McConnell, Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., will be the first meeting of the congressional leaders with the president since mid-November.
Senators expressed little optimism a deal was possible, though they expected to remain in town over the weekend and some said an agreement could still be produced in the final days.
“Virtually every member of the Senate and the president have seen this new movie on Lincoln,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Ohio. “The lesson of that movie is to get hard things done. The president has to decide he wants to get them done.”