Obama meets Boehner, fiscal cliff deal may be near

PHOTO: Obama meets Boehner, fiscal cliff deal may be near

WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama held fresh talks with top Republican lawmaker John Boehner at the White House on Monday, in their latest effort to reach a deal to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff.

Obama and Boehner, the speaker of the House, met for about 45 minutes - the latest in a series of meetings between the two protagonists in the negotiations as they seek to forge a compromise aimed at preventing tax hikes and federal spending cuts from kicking in beginning January 1.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner also joined the talks.

"The president believes that the parameters of a potential agreement are clear," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

That hardly ensures a deal, but The Washington Post reported Monday that signs have emerged that the two sides had narrowed their differences and could be close to shaking hands on an agreement which would see US$1 trillion (S$1.22 trillion) in new tax revenues and US$1 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade.

Carney would not characterize the discussions other to describe them as "frank and direct and deliberate," but he also said Obama had essentially rejected the latest offer by Boehner.

"We have not seen a proposal besides the president's that achieves the balance that the president insists be part of a deal, because we can't have a situation where deficit reduction is borne unduly or primarily by the middle class or by seniors," Carney said.

Several phone calls and three face-to-face Obama-Boehner meetings in the past eight days have raised hopes, however, that a deal is possible by the end of the year.

"It's fair to say that we have continued to engage in communications with the speaker's office and his staff and with other leaders and their staffs," Carney said.

And with Friday's horrific shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut diverting lawmakers' attention and muting the rhetoric on the deficit battle, negotiations were left to proceed Monday largely out of the media glare.

Republicans at least publicly have refused to go along with Obama's call to raise taxes on all US households earning more than US$250,000 per year as part of his plan to raise US$1.6 trillion in new tax revenues over the next decade.

Boehner has offered US$800 billion in new revenue through the closing of loopholes and the elimination of tax deductions, but not by raising tax rates on the rich. Obama has dropped his revenues request to US$1.4 trillion.

In a concession Friday, Boehner sweetened his offer, reportedly agreeing to back tax hikes on those making more than US$1 million per year provided spending cuts to entitlement programs like Medicare are part of the deal.

The Post reported on its website that the outlines of an agreement were emerging, with a compromise on tax hikes likely settling on people making more than US$500,000 or US$750,000 per year, with additional revenue raised by limiting certain tax deductions.

The total revenue raised would be a bit more than $1 trillion, while spending cuts also would raise another $1 trillion, the Post reported, without offering specifics.

It also said any final plan would likely include fresh stimulus spending that Obama has pushed for, including an extension of unemployment insurance and some infrastructure spending, and a lifting of the US debt ceiling for another year.

If a deal emerges in the coming days - and manages to pass both chambers of Congress - it would go a long way toward removing a massive cloud of uncertainty over the US and global economies.

But Boehner would still need to sell the ingredients to Republicans, many of whom oppose any new tax hikes.

While the two sides forge ahead, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, warned fellow senators to prepare for an abbreviated Christmas holiday.

"It appears that we're going to be coming back on the day after Christmas to complete work on the fiscal cliff," Reid said. Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said as much last week.

If no agreement is reached by year's end, taxes rise on all Americans on January 1, followed by some US$110 billion in spending cuts in 2013, split evenly between military and civilian programs.

Congressional economists say tumbling over the fiscal cliff could send the US economy back into recession.