By Robert Koenig
While Senate leaders struggled behind the scenes to try to hammer out a last-minute deal to avoid the fiscal cliff, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt gave the Republican response to President Barack Obama's broadcast appeal for congressional action.
"There's not much time, but there's still time to act," Blunt said in his broadcast address on Saturday. "Both President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have claimed that an achievable plan is one that can pass both houses of Congress and Republicans agree."
But both Obama and Blunt couched their last-minute appeals for action in terms that would play to the politics of their party if a deal is not reached by New Year's Day to extend at least some of the Bush-era tax cuts and lessen the impact of across-the-board spending reductions that are scheduled to begin.
"We just can't afford a politically self-inflicted wound to our economy," said Obama. "Leaders in Congress are working on a way to prevent this tax hike on the middle class, and I believe we may be able to reach an agreement that can pass both houses in time."
However, Obama warned that he would blame recalcitrant Republicans if leaders are unable to work out a deal or if the House refuses to vote on it. If there is Senate action, a House vote could occur on Monday, lawmakers said.
If a bipartisan deal isn't reached, Obama said in his address, "I'll urge the Senate to hold an up-or-down vote on a basic package that protects the middle class from an income tax hike, extends vital unemployment insurance for Americans looking for a job, and lays the groundwork for future progress on more economic growth and deficit reduction."
Update: Obama hammered home that message Sunday on "Meet The Press," saying "the pressure's on Congress to produce" a deal in the next couple of days that would avert sharp tax increases for most Americans.
"If we can get that done, that takes a big bite out of the fiscal cliff," Obama said. "It avoids the worst outcomes. And we're then going to have some tough negotiations in terms of how we continue to reduce the deficit, grow the economy, create jobs."
Obama said that there are areas where both sides agree so they should be able to find common ground there: "Democrats and Republicans both say they don't want taxes to go up on middle-class families. ... If we can get that done, that takes a big bite out of the fiscal cliff. It avoids the worst outcomes."
Stressing that middle-class Americans should not bear the whole burden of deficit reduction, Obama called for "shared sacrifice."
"It is very difficult for me to say to a senior citizen or a student or a mom with a disabled kid, 'You are going to have to do with less but we're not going to ask millionaires and billionaires to do more.'"
Senate leaders were having trouble crafting a bipartisan agreement, with Reid telling senators Sunday afternoon that the talks had hit at least a temporary impasse. The biggest obstacle appeared to be McConnell's insistence that any deal include a new way of calculating inflation that would lower future Social Security payments.
However, neither side gave up on the talks. And, earlier in the day, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., had told Fox News that chances for a scaled-back deal were "exceedingly good."
By early Sunday evening, however, Graham had changed his tune, sending a Tweet saying: "I'm incredibly disappointed we cannot seem to find common ground. I think we're going over the cliff." End update
For his part, Blunt -- the fifth-ranking Senate GOP leader -- outlined Republican arguments in favor of extending virtually all of the tax cuts. And he asserted that Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate should shoulder the blame if a deal isn't reached.
"Inaction shouldn't be an option," Blunt said. "The problems facing our country are big, but they're not necessarily all that complicated. The president will never have more political capital than he does right now, and the next few days will begin to define his second term."
Blunt added: "We still can avoid going over the fiscal cliff if the president and the Democrat-controlled Senate step forward this week and work with Republicans to solve this problem and solve it now."
On edge of cliff
The Saturday broadcasts by Obama and Blunt followed a White House meeting on Friday during which the president and congressional leaders agreed that Senate Majority Leader Reid, D-Nev., and GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., should work this weekend with the goal of drafting a package that could be debated Sunday.
Meanwhile, in the background, other lawmakers were working on alternate plans that might be debated, either in the waning days of this Congress (which officially ends at noon on Jan. 3) or the early days of the new Congress, which begins that same afternoon.
Some in Congress like the idea of going over the "cliff" and then trying to solve the problems in January. Democrats will pick up seats in both the Senate and House in the new Congress. Also, once the tax rates go up, it would free Republicans who have taken no-tax-increase pledges to support a deal that would only reinstate some of the Bush-era tax cuts of 2001 and 2003.
Obama said he remains committed to "a balanced plan -- one that would protect the middle class, cut spending in a responsible way, and ask the wealthiest Americans to pay a little more." But he said the deal being negotiated this weekend by Senate leaders would likely be a short-term agreement focused mostly on limiting tax hikes.
"I believe such a proposal could pass both houses with bipartisan majorities -- as long as these leaders allow it to come to a vote," said Obama. "If they still want to vote no, and let this tax hike hit the middle class, that's their prerogative -- but they should let everyone vote. That's the way this is supposed to work."
But Blunt blamed Obama and Democratic leaders for failing to lead as the nation approached the fiscal cliff. "There's an old saying that when you fail to plan, you plan to fail, and that's exactly what they've been doing," the Missouri senator said.
The Republican-controlled House could not muster the votes last week to approve a bill to allow taxes to increase only on those earning more than $1 million a year. But Blunt said the House earlier had passed legislation extending all the Bush-era tax cuts and replacing the "sequester" across-the-board cutbacks with "responsible targeted ones."
"The president's proposal to raise taxes on the top 2 percent of Americans won't even pay one-third of the annual interest that's now owed on this massive $16 trillion debt," said Blunt, asserting that the main focus should be on reducing federal spending.
"Republicans hope to work across the aisle to solve these and other critical challenges facing America in the New Year. Divided government is a good time to solve hard problems -- and in the next few days, leaders in Washington have an important responsibility to work together and do just that."
Many lawmakers from Missouri and Illinois were pessimistic about a fiscal cliff deal being reached before the New Year. But others, including U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., still held out hope for at least a temporary agreement.
"Still hoping for a compromise," McCaskill said in a Tweet sent late Friday. "Voted till early evening in Senate, back to floor on Sunday."