'Tis the season for spreading holiday cheer and, this year, urgent messages about the "fiscal cliff."
President Obama, Republican lawmakers and an army of independent advocacy groups have mounted an aggressive new public campaign to highlight the stakes in a deal to avoid an economically toxic package of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts could take hold in 35 days.
The push has all the makings of a political campaign -- coming just three weeks after Election Day -- but with the nation's debt taking center stage instead of an individual candidate.
President Obama is accelerating outreach to key constituencies to shore up support for his "balanced" debt-reduction plan of tax increases on wealthier Americans coupled with cuts to government spending.
The president will today host a private White House meeting with 15 small-business leaders, including the founder of an airplane crop-duster manufacturer from Texas, a music store owner from St. Louis and a local beer brewer from Wisconsin.
The president will hold an event Wednesday to highlight the stories of Americans who wrote to the administration online about the importance of extending the Bush-era tax cuts for middle-income earners, and how going over the "cliff" and letting rates rise might adversely affect them.
Obama then hits the "campaign trail" Friday for a rally at a factory outside Philadelphia that makes K'NEX brand toys, taking his case directly to the people on the importance of averting the "fiscal cliff" for buoying consumer confidence and purchasing power during the holidays.
"Hearing from [voters], hearing their voices and hearing their priorities is essential to helping compel this process forward," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday.
There are still no plans for the "Big Four" -- House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell -- to reconvene for face-to-face discussions, according to a top congressional aide.
White House and congressional staffs continue to meet on a daily basis, while an aide to the speaker said the top House Republicans are meeting privately today.
"We're not going to solve this problem by creating villains and drumming up outrage," McConnell said. "We'll solve the problem by doing the hard work of sitting down, figuring out a solution that involves tough choices on all sides."
The key sticking point remains taxes. Obama insists that income tax rates should rise on individuals earning more than $200,000 a year and families making more than $250,000, or the top 2 percent of Americans. Republicans remain staunchly opposed to increasing rates.
Boehner and other party leaders have expressed willingness to raise more revenue, coupled with overhauling entitlement programs, but they say it should be done by closing tax loopholes and capping deductions while decreasing net tax rates themselves.
"The target of the president's rallies should be the congressional Democrats who want to raise tax rates on small businesses rather than cut spending," Boehner said in a statement.
Pressure from the administration and public opinion is unlikely to persuade House Republicans to change course given that most of have vowed to reject any tax increases and would almost certainly draw a primary challenge if they wavered.
Many lawmakers plan to take their case against a tax rate increase on the road, planning public events in their home states and visits to small businesses, according to a Boehner spokesman.
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy also announced this afternoon that the House Republican leaders will meet with small-business owners in his office next week to discuss "solutions that will most effectively spur economic growth and create an environment to get more Americans back to work."
"These businesses employ the majority of Americans and will be the most adversely affected by an increase in tax rates," McCarthy, R-Calif., said. "The Democrats' obsession with punitive tax increases isn't a solution."
Boehner and House Republicans plan to meet with former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and members of the "Fix the Debt" coalition Wednesday, his office said. The Ohio congressman will also meet with an array of business leaders and CEOs.
Meanwhile, an army of independent interest groups have also begun adding their voices to the debate, running TV and radio ads, posting billboards and gathering signatures in online petition campaigns.