Fiscal Cliff Talks Stall As Obama, Boehner Dig Heels In

President Obama tapped Vice President Biden to lead a new government effort against gun violence on Wednesday. It's the first step toward what Mr. Obama promised as "meaningful action" in the wake of deadly shootings at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut.

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There were two big agenda items at a White House news conference today: gun violence and the fiscal cliff. President Obama took a step towards his promise of meaningful action to prevent attacks like last week's elementary school shooting in Connecticut. Mr. Obama has asked Vice President Biden to develop policy proposals to deliver to Congress within a month. The president also urged congressional Republicans to compromise on the issue of budget cuts and tax increases scheduled for the end of this year. We'll hear Capitol Hill reaction to that call after this report from NPR's Scott Horsley at the White House.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Mr. Obama wants to move quickly to address gun violence while the painful memories of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting are still fresh. A team led by Vice President Biden is expected to consider a wide variety of measures the government could take and report back by the end of January.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is not something where folks are going to be studying the issue for six months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside. This is a team that has a very specific task: to pull together real reforms right now.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama says he assigned the task to the vice president in part because as a senator, Biden spearheaded the 1994 crime bill, which included a ban on military-style assault weapons like the one used in Connecticut. That ban expired eight years ago, but Mr. Obama says there's now widespread support for reinstating it, as well as outlawing high-capacity ammunition clips and requiring background checks for all gun purchases, including the 40 percent that are now exempt.

OBAMA: I urge the new Congress to hold votes on these measures next year in a timely manner. And considering Congress hasn't confirmed a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in six years, the agency that works most closely with state and local law enforcement to keep illegal guns out of the hands of criminals, I'd suggest that they make this a priority early in the year.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama acknowledged gun control by itself is not enough. Biden's team will also consider education, care for the mentally ill and cultural factors that may contribute to gun violence.

OBAMA: The fact that this problem is complex can no longer be an excuse for doing nothing.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama says, in the wake of last week's shooting, efforts to protect children must be a central priority. For the moment though, much of Washington is preoccupied with the fiscal cliff, the automatic tax hikes and spending cuts set to kick in January 1. That is unless Congress and the White House agree on a way to avoid them.

Earlier this week, the president and House Speaker John Boehner seemed to be closing in on such a deal. But yesterday, Boehner abruptly halted negotiations and began pushing his own bill called Plan B. Mr. Obama says that's puzzling because when it comes to tax and spending proposals, the two sides were not that far apart.

OBAMA: The idea that we would put our economy at risk because you can't bridge that gap doesn't make a lot of sense. So I'm going to continue to talk to the speaker and the other leaders up in Congress. But ultimately, they've got to do their job.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama says it defies logic that Boehner is pursuing a plan that would raise tax rates on millionaires, something Republicans have long opposed, but achieve no spending cuts in return. In contrast, the president's latest proposal includes more than $1 trillion worth of spending cuts, including slower growth in Social Security payments, which Republicans have long sought.

OBAMA: They keep on finding ways to say no as opposed to finding ways to say yes. And I don't know how much of that just has to do with, you know, it is very hard for them to say yes to me.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama says it's time for Republicans to peel off the partisan war paint and make a deal. He seized on the national outpouring of emotion following the Connecticut shootings to appeal for cooperation.

OBAMA: Goodness, if this past week has done anything, it should just give us some perspective.

HORSLEY: As the nation mourns 6- and 7-year-olds who were gunned down in their classroom, Mr. Obama suggests it needs leaders in Washington who can act like grown-ups. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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