Obama, Boehner Hold 'Fiscal Cliff' Talks

With just three weeks left before automatic tax hikes and spending cuts kick in, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are under pressure to get something done. They met at the White House Sunday.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On a Monday, it's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Over the weekend, the president and House Speaker John Boehner met for a time, and that's about all we know. A statement went out that a meeting occurred, but neither side is revealing what was said behind closed doors at the White House. With just three weeks left before automatic tax hikes and spending cuts kick in, the president and the speaker are under pressure to get something done.

For a read on that and more, we're joined, as we are most Mondays, by Cokie Roberts.

Good morning, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So this time last week, the Republicans were saying that the president had nothing serious to offer. But now, at least he's meeting directly with Speaker Boehner. And even Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee said over the weekend that he's beginning to believe it may be a good idea to go with a tax-hike on the wealthiest.

Where do things stand as we begin this week?

ROBERTS: Well, that meeting yesterday between the speaker and the president was the first one-on-one meeting with them alone since last July. So that's something, and they issued statements saying, quote, "The lines of communication are open." And staff will be meeting today.

Look, they've got to have lots of communication open. This is getting very, very, very serious. Christine Lagarde, the chairman of the International Monetary Fund, said yesterday that if the United States goes over the so-called fiscal cliff, there would be, quote, "a lack of confidence in the U.S. economy." The markets would react very quickly, and the stock market would be really taking a hit, and that growth would be zero, that all the recent good economic signs in the housing market and the jobs market would be, she said, negated.

Now, does anybody really want that to happen in Washington? I think not.

MONTAGNE: Well, it is a safe bet that few people want to see their own taxes go up on January 1st. But there are a lot of other things at stake here, too. Remind us who else might be most affected.

ROBERTS: Well, all the tax rates, income tax rates would be affected. They would revert to where they were before the George Bush tax cuts. Unemployment, extended unemployment benefits - which affect about two million Americans - would go away. The payroll tax holiday, where people have been getting a break on what they pay in Social Security taxes, would end. And for someone making about $50,000, that's about $20 a week.

The Alternative Minimum Tax, which is something that was put in to make sure that millionaires paid taxes, was never adjusted for inflation. If that's not touched, then people who make as little as $75,000 a year could get a hard hit in their tax bills. Special tax breaks for people whose houses are underwater on their mortgages would go away. Estate taxes would go up.

And I haven't even talked about spending cuts here yet, Renee. Doctors who have Medicare patients would see their fees go down. So there's just a huge host of issues here. And, as I say, the spending cuts hit every program, including national defense, something that the defense secretary, Leon Panetta, has said was a national security issue.

So with all of that stake - even though the administration says the president is willing to go over the cliff, without change on tax rates for the top two percent - I think that some deal is likely to get made.

MONTAGNE: Cokie, we understand you were at a weekend symposium in honor of the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill, to mark what would have been his hundredth birthday. He was the Democratic speaker who found himself in a similar position with President Reagan. Did you come away with any lessons after that weekend's event?

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: Well, you know, there's been a rosy glow painted over the relationship between Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan, because they were two sort of larger-than-life Irishmen who had a ready smile and a quick joke. They didn't really have that warm a relationship, but they had a relationship of respect. And they also respected the institutions in which each of them served.

And so, in the end, even though it was often hard to swallow - particularly for Tip O'Neill, who was a great champion of the little guy - they did come to agreements. And I think that what we're lacking here this time around is that measure of respect.

MONTAGNE: Pleasure talking to you, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Commentator Cokie Roberts.

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