WASHINGTON, D.C. - Congressional leaders will meet with President Obama and his staff at the White House Friday afternoon in last minute, face-to-face negotiations as the country teeters toward the perilous package of tax hikes and federal budget slashes collectively-known as the " fiscal cliff."
Capitol Hill insiders admit the chances of avoiding the cliff are slim with a comprehensive deal more likely to come in January after the new Congress is sworn in, but there may be another option on the table. The leaders may pass temporary stop-gap measures designed to limit the cliff's effects to a minority of the population.
The 3:00 p.m. Oval Office session is closed to the press, but its attendees are planned to include at least Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi with the president, Vice President Biden and others. Although only four days remain until the deadline, this is the first time the so-called "Big Four" congressional leaders have assembled together in-person in weeks. Their last meeting was Nov. 16.
If the political leaders fail to pass a federal budget agreement through Congress before the cliff's measures take effect, most economists agree the package's fallout would send the U.S. economy back into recession.
Senate Republicans are mourning the prospect of a temporary small deal to solve the immediate fiscal cliff problems today because they say a half-measure would leave the bigger issues, like entitlement reform, without a solution for reform.
"It's pretty apparent that we're not going to do what we've been called to do," Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said at a press conference today. "Without anything that is bold in place that's probably not going to happen."
Corker predicted some sort of scaled-back short-term measure will be passed and that it will show the lack of "courage" of the president.
"What's likely to happen at the end of this year is we're going to end up with a small, kick-the-can down the road bill that creates another fiscal cliff to deal with this fiscal cliff. How irresponsible."
This week has seen a flurry of travel for the party leadership as they returned from holiday vacations to continue negotiations, although little progress has been reported publicly. President Obama returned from Hawaii Thursday morning, the same day a senior White House official told ABC News, " There is no White House bill" in the works.
That statement came as Republicans continue to push the notion of working from a budget bill that has already cleared the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. That legislation, which passed August 1, would extend all of the current tax rates for one year.
Meanwhile the fundamentals of any hypothetical agreement continue to be at odds. Democrats remain adamant on letting the "Bush-era" tax cuts expire on incomes over $250,000 - roughly two percent of Americans - while Republicans insist on keeping the current rates in place across all brackets. President Obama has rejected a proposal from Boehner to raise the bar to incomes of $1 million and higher, although in his last offer to the speaker, the president reportedly raised the Democrats' threshold to $400,000.
Nevertheless, with the Senate in session today and the House scheduled to reconvene Sunday evening, Congress has left open the possibility of passing last-minute legislation.
Assuming a temporary deal succeeds in curbing tax hikes for a majority of Americans, Corker and colleague Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., introduced a plan they say will cut federal spending by $1 trillion through Medicare reforms in exchange for increasing the nation's borrowing limit by $1 trillion that they believe should have been worked on all along. Alexander dubbed this the looming "Medicare cliff."
"We could tax all the rich people and cut their heads off and it would do nothing to help the Medicare fiscal cliff. We need to do both and the president has to lead it. And if he does I am ready to work with the him and so are a lot of other Republicans and Democrats." Alexander said.
The Senators propose raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67 and to require wealthier Medicare users to pay higher premiums.
With the clock ticking toward the New Years Eve deadline, Democrats on Capitol Hill today hauled out a Times Square ball prop in the Senate park just steps away from the US Capitol.
The message was clearly spelled out: don't drop the ball at New Years on the middle class.
"Speaker Boehner, call the House back to work. Do it now. You don't have to wait till Sunday night," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-MD., said, "You don't have to try and run out the clock because the danger is that you actually run out the clock, and then the country goes over the fiscal cliff, but the ball drops on the middle class."
This report has been updated.