With less than two days remaining for Congress to reach a budget agreement that would avoid the so-called " fiscal cliff," President Obama today suggested that a small deal remains the best hope to avoid the perilous package of spending cuts and tax increases.
In an interview aired this morning on NBC's "Meet the Press" the president said if Republicans agreed to raising taxes on top income earners it should be enough to avoid the triggers that would execute the $607 billion measure. Economists agree that going over the cliff would likely put the country back in recession.
"If we have raised some revenue by the wealthy paying a little bit more, that would be sufficient to turn off what's called the sequester, these automatic spending cuts, and that also would have a better outcome for our economy long-term," he said.
Saying the "pressure is on Congress to produce," the president did not specify what income level his party would deem acceptable as the cutoff for those who would see their tax rates remain at current levels. The president has called for expiration of the "Bush-era" tax cuts to affect household earnings over $250,000 since the campaign, but has reportedly floated a $400,000 figure in past negotiations. Speaker John Boehner once offered a $1 million cut-off in his failed "Plan B" proposal, which failed to garner enough support among the House Republicans.
"It's been very hard for Speaker Boehner and Republican Leader McConnell to accept the fact that taxes on the wealthiest Americans should go up a little bit as part of an overall deficit reduction package," the president said.
Domestic programs would lose $55 billion in funding should sequestration pass, including $2 billion to Medicare and unemployment benefits. The Pentagon would take a $55 billion loss as well, or 9 percent of their budget.
Repeating remarks he made Friday after a meeting with congressional leaders, Obama said that should negotiations fail he has asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to introduce a stripped- down proposal to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote - if it isn't blocked.
"If all else fails, if Republicans do in fact decide to block so that taxes on the middle class do in fact go up on January 1, then we'll come back with a new Congress on January 4, and the first bill that will be introduced on the floor will be to cut taxes on middle-class families," he said of the worst case scenario. "I don't think the average person is going to say, 'Gosh, you know, that's a really partisan agenda.'"
The interview was taped Saturday while Reid and his GOP counterpart Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky scrambled to their offices for a solution behind closed doors. Press staking out Capitol Hill reported little public activity from the leaders or their surrogates. If negotiations are successful, the lawmakers could introduce a bill for vote this afternoon.
Republican leaders bit back at the president's remarks. In a written statement Speaker Boehner said casting blame was "ironic, as a recurring theme of our negotiations was his unwillingness to agree to anything that would require him to stand up to his own party. "
"In an effort to get the president to agree to cut spending - which is the problem - I put revenues on the table last year, and I put them on the table again last month," he wrote. "Republicans made every effort to reach the 'balanced' deficit agreement that the president promised the American people, while the president has continued to insist on a package skewed dramatically in favor of higher taxes that would destroy jobs."
Senator McConnell's office issued this response to the NBC appearance:
"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. Discussions continue today."
Regardless of outcome, talk of a comprehensive budget deal is gone and any bill would likely set up a series of smaller partisan roadblocks in the weeks and months to come. For example, if any hypothetical legislation managed to dodge tax increases for the middle class it may still not address the looming debt ceiling, which Treasury can avoid using accounting tricks for approximately two months.
A small deal may also not address the estate tax, another central point of the brinkmanship. Currently standing at 35 percent, Republicans want to leave that rate as-is after exempting the first $5 million in estate value. Meanwhile Democrats have called for a 45 percent tax after a $3.5 million exemption. Should negotiations fail, it would climb to 55 percent after a $1 million exemption after the New Year.
ABC's Sunlen Miller and the Associated Press contributed to this report, which has been updated.