Political brinkmanship appears to have created a last minute chance for the White House and Congress to agree on a plan to avoid sending the country over the fiscal cliff.
President Obama emerged from an Oval Office meeting with Congressional leaders this evening to say "we had a constructive meeting today" and that he was "moderately optimistic" that they could devise a federal budget proposal ahead of a Jan. 1 deadline that would otherwise automatically trigger a wide range of tax increases and spending cuts. Economists fear that such a combination could throw the country back into a recession.
He said Senate Majority Leader Harry, a Democrat, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, were trying to quickly fashion a deal.
"Sens. Reid and McConnell are discussing a potential agreement where we can get a bipartisan bill out of the Senate and over to the House in a timely fashion so that we meet the Dec. 31 deadline," Obama said in a hastily-arranged statement. "But given how things have been working in this town we always have to wait and see to see whether it actually happens."
Admitting the weekend could ultimately prove fruitless, the president said as a backup plan he had instructed Reid to deliver the Democratic proposal to the Senate floor for a straight up-or-down vote. That would boost taxes for couples making more than $250,000.
"I believe such a proposal could pass both houses with bipartisan majorities as long as those leaders allow it to actually come to a vote," Obama said. "If members of the House or the Senate want to vote no, they can, but we should let everybody vote. That's the way this is supposed to work. If you can get a majority in the House and you can get a majority in the Senate, then we should be able to pass a bill."
The president lamented that a deal is coming down to the final hours.
"The American people are watching what we do... (their) patience is already thin," the president said. "It's deja vu all over again."
He added later that for Americans the repeated last second efforts to dodge economic crises "is mind boggling to them. It has to stop."
Obama did not give details on what common ground was found behind the West Wing's doors, but ABC News has learned the president did not come to the discussions armed with new proposals. For one, a source familiar with meeting said, the president reiterated his party's past insistence on letting the "Bush-era" tax cuts for income over $250,000 expire, a measure which would affect 2 percent of Americans.
In his brief remarks the president reiterated that this stance was one he campaigned on in the months leading to his November reelection.
Besides Reid and McConnell, the meeting was attended by House Speaker John Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, ice President Biden and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Although only four days remain until the deadline, this was the first time the so-called "Big Four" congressional leaders have assembled together in-person in weeks. Their last meeting was Nov. 16.
According to a readout of the meeting from the Speaker's office, "the leaders spent the majority of the meeting discussing potential options and components for a plan that could pass both chambers of Congress."
"The speaker told the president that if the Senate amends the House-passed legislation and sends back a plan, the House will consider it - either by accepting or amending," a GOP aide close to the negotiations said. "The group agreed that the next step should be the Senate taking bipartisan action."
After leaving the Oval Office, the Senate Democratic and Republican leaders announced on the Senate floor that they're aiming to have a proposal on the fiscal cliff drawn up by Sunday, with the potential to put it on the Senate floor that afternoon.
"We had a good meeting down at the White House," Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. "We are engaged in discussions, the majority leader, myself and the White House in the hopes that we can come forward as early as Sunday and have a recommendation that I can make to my conference and the majority leader can make to his conference."
McConnell said that he is "hopeful and optimistic" and they'll be "working hard" over the next 24 hours "to see if we can get there."
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., echoed those sentiments.
"We certainly hope something will come from that," Reid said of today's White House meeting. "The Republican leader and I and our staffs are working to see what we can come up with. We shouldn't take a long time to do that."
The Senate will come in at 1 p.m. on Sunday. There will be a caucus meeting in the afternoon. Reid says he hopes by that time on Sunday there will be a determination if a proposal can be brought to the floor.
"There was not a lot of hilarity in the meeting. Everyone knows how important it is, it was a very serious meeting," Reid said on today's White House meeting.
Reid warned that whatever they come up with it will be "imperfect."
"Some people aren't going to like it," Reid said. "Some people will like it less but that's where we are. And I feel confident that we have an obligation to do the best we can, and that was made very clear at the White House."
Despite the small hope, the prospect remains that any hypothetical agreement would only be a temporary-stop gap measure. Earlier today Senate Republicans are mourned the prospect of such a 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 before the leadership summit. "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."