U.S. leaders 'not near finish line' on fiscal cliff talks - White House

ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE Sun Nov 18, 2012 10:21am IST

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney answers a question during a media briefing at the White House in Washington November 13, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney answers a question during a media briefing at the White House in Washington November 13, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

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ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama will meet with congressional leaders in the week after Thanksgiving to discuss the "fiscal cliff" of expiring tax cuts and spending reductions, and he remains committed to fighting off a tax increase for most Americans, White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Saturday.

But Carney refused to provide details of the agreement Obama is negotiating with the country's top lawmakers.

"Everyone expressed the desire to reach an agreement that reflected the shared goal of achieving a balanced approach to deficit reduction and that enabled the economy to continue to grow and create jobs," Carney told reporters about Obama's Friday meeting with the most powerful members of both parties in Congress.

"There are a number of steps that I'm sure the president and leaders will consider but I don't want to characterize what that process will look like because we're not near the finish line, by any means," he said.

If the federal government cannot reach a compromise, then starting in January about $600 billion worth of tax increases and spending reductions will kick in. Economists have warned that the sudden shock of austerity, combined with consumers putting more of their dollars toward taxes instead of shopping, could plunge the United States back into a recession.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi discussed with Obama a framework presented by Boehner on Friday. Boehner said the outline included tax reforms and spending cuts.

Since winning re-election last week, Obama has spoken extensively about his desire to extend the so-called "Bush tax cuts" for middle- and low-income earners, while allowing the breaks for the highest earners to expire. He has said that will keep taxes low for 98 percent of Americans.

But Obama has been quieter on the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts known as "sequestration," causing some to wonder if he is working on a plan with different phases.

"Let's begin our work by actually doing what we all agree on. Let's keep taxes low for the middle class," Obama said in his weekly radio address on Saturday that did not mention sequestration. "And let's get it done soon - so we can give families and businesses some good news going into the holiday season."

When asked if the president and congressional leaders had agreed to a "two-tier" plan, Carney told reporters: "You're getting way ahead of the process." He said Obama remains focused on the expiring tax cuts for those with middle and low incomes.

Carney said both Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Chief of Staff Jack Lew "will be very involved in this process but we don't have designated team leaders."

Along with meeting with members of Congress, Obama spent the week talking to mayors, business executives, civic leaders, progressive groups and unions about the fiscal cliff. After their meetings they all expressed their support of keeping sudden tax increases at bay.

Speaking on Fox News on Saturday, Representative Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget committee, said Obama's re-election win gave him a mandate on raising taxes on the wealthy.

"I think that's clear, both in the election results and in the post-election polls, the exit polls," he said. "This was not a side issue in the debate. This was a central part of the conversation that we had."

Van Hollen said that since Obama "has laid out his revenue plan very clearly," Boehner should lay out his plan.

"He has said some positive things but we haven't seen any substance to his proposals," he said.

(Reporting By Jeff Mason, Doug Palmer and Lisa Lambert; Writing by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Bill Trott)

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