President Obama waves from the South Lawn of the White House after returning… (Alex Wong, Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — Their deadline rushing closer, President Obama and the top four congressional leaders announced plans to meet Friday to try to pick up the pieces of the shattered budget talks, even as they spent Thursday positioning themselves to dodge the blame for failure.
Expectations for a breakthrough at the White House huddle were low, but it was clear the president and the lawmakers felt obligated to at least appear to be pushing for a solution right up to the Dec. 31 deadline, when all taxpayers will see their income taxes rise if a deal is not reached.
The announcement of the afternoon session came late Thursday, after a full day of public posturing and finger-pointing over both the tax increases and widespread spending cuts scheduled to take effect in the new year.
Before returning to Washington from an abbreviated Christmas vacation in Hawaii, Obama placed late-night phone calls Wednesday to the leaders. The outreach was most notable for including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who would play a key role in any deal.
"We'll see what the president has to propose," McConnell said early Thursday as he drew a hard line against yielding to the president's priorities. "Republicans aren't about to write a blank check for anything Senate Democrats put forward just because we find ourselves at the edge of the cliff."
House Speaker John A. Boehner, wary of House Republicans being seen as contributing to the standoff, told his troops Thursday to return to the capital from their holiday recess, announcing that his chamber would resume business Sunday. The timing suggested that the Ohio Republican wanted his members in position to vote on legislation coming from the Senate — or at least appear to be working in the final hours as a way of shielding themselves from political blowback as they blamed the other side.
Such was the nature of most action Thursday: As the "fiscal cliff" neared, both sides appeared to look simultaneously for an emergency brake and political cover.
Friday's White House session, which will include McConnell, Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), will be the first meeting of the congressional leaders with the president since mid-November.
Senators expressed little optimism that a deal was possible, though they expected to remain in town over the weekend and some said an agreement could still be produced.
"Virtually every member of the Senate and the president have seen this new movie on Lincoln," Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said. "The lesson of that movie is to get hard things done. The president has to decide he wants to get them done."
In a conference call with GOP members, Boehner again sought to pressure the Senate to take the lead in avoiding the cliff. The speaker's own efforts to rally his Republican House majority around a plan fell apart last week, when he could not get votes for a proposal that would have allowed taxes on income of more than $1 million to rise, leaving cuts for lower incomes intact.
Boehner said bluntly Thursday that he would not bend to Democratic pressure to let the House vote on the president's preferred solution, which allows taxes to rise on income of more than $250,000 for couples and $200,000 for individuals. The bill might be able to pass largely with Democratic support, but that would put the speaker in the politically awkward position of allowing legislation out of the chamber without the support of his majority.
Boehner, whose reelection as speaker is set for next week, appeared unwilling to take that risk.
"I'm not interested in passing a bill with mainly Democratic votes," he told members, according to someone who was on the call but not authorized to discuss the private talk.
The Senate, which is run by Democrats, is now likely to determine the outcome. Under Senate rules, McConnell has the ability to hold up any legislation, but he could also allow the chamber to vote on an alternative proposal from Democrats that might appeal to some Republicans even though it still hews to Obama's priorities, including an extension of long-term unemployment benefits that Democrats want.
"Hopefully there's still time for an agreement of some kind," he said on the Senate floor.
Democrats, though, have shown little interest in more negotiations over Republican demands, especially for steep domestic spending cuts like those considered under a broader deficit reduction deal.
Reid opened the day by suggesting there was no longer time for a deal. And he ended it with harsh criticism of Boehner's attempt to resolve the stalemate. "The debacle of debacles," he said. "The mother of all debacles."
At one point during the day, Reid made the short walk down the hall to McConnell's office, but there was little indication the men engaged much, if at all, on the issue of the day.