By Kathleen Hennessey
This post has been updated, as indicated below.
8:05 AM PST, December 30, 2012
WASHINGTON -- President Obama blamed Republican leaders for the latest round of brinkmanship in Washington and said it was now up to lawmakers to find a way back from the so-called fiscal cliff.
In an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” aired Sunday, Obama said he had reached out to Republicans for weeks, but their refusal to raise taxes had blocked progress.
“They have had trouble saying yes to a number of repeated offers,” Obama said. In Friday’s meeting with congressional leaders at the White House, “I suggested to them if they can't do a comprehensive package of smart deficit reductions, let's at minimum make sure that people's taxes don't go up and that 2 million people don't lose their unemployment insurance.
“And I was modestly optimistic yesterday,” he added in the interview taped Saturday, referring to the aftermath of that meeting, “but we don't yet see an agreement. And now the pressure's on Congress to produce.”
Senate leaders and their aides spent Saturday working on a deal that would protect most taxpayers from seeing their incomes taxes rise Jan. 1. The deal may also set new estate tax rates, prevent an expansion of the alternative minimum tax and extend unemployment insurance.
If the effort is successful, a final proposal is expected later Sunday, when senators are set to meet in party caucuses.
A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell responded to the president's criticism:
"While the president was taping those discordant remarks yesterday, Sen. McConnell was in the office working to bring Republicans and Democrats together on a solution," Don Stewart said. "Discussions continue today."
In the interview, Obama said he expected an “adverse reaction in the markets” and depressed consumer spending if lawmakers allow the tax increase to take effect as scheduled -- and he tried to lay the blame on Republicans. Economists have suggested the combination of the tax increases, along with nearly $65 billion in spending cuts, could knock the economy back into a recession.
Obama did not offer a clear strategy for avoiding those spending cuts, which Congress and the president agreed to in 2011 as a way to force themselves to act on a larger deficit reduction deal. That deal has remained elusive, and Obama said in the interview that Republicans have had trouble saying yes to his offers.
Pressed by host David Gregory on why that is, Obama answered:
“That's something you're probably going to have to ask them, because, David, you follow this stuff pretty carefully. The offers that I’ve made to them have been so fair that a lot of Democrats get mad at me. I mean, I offered to make some significant changes to our entitlement programs in order to reduce the deficit,” he said, referring specifically to a change in the way Social Security cost of living increases are calculated, which many liberal groups opposed.
“They say that their biggest priority is making sure that we deal with the deficit in a serious way, but the way they're behaving is that their only priority is making sure that tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are protected. That seems to be their only overriding, unifying theme.”
Obama has tried to frame the debate as a battle over taxes. One Republican acknowledged Sunday that the president appears poised to win the political battle on that front. If lawmakers agree on allowing taxes to rise on top earners, “it will accomplish a political victory for the president,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina
“Hats off to the president. He stood his ground; he’s going to get tax rate increases … on upper income Americans. And the sad news for the country is we’ve accomplished very little in terms of not becoming Greece or getting out of debt.… Hats off to the president -- he won.”
[For the Record, 8:05 a.m. PST Dec. 30: This post has been updated to include reactions to Obama's comments from McConnell's office.]
Copyright © 2013, The Los Angeles Times