Obama Focuses On Newtown, 'Fiscal Cliff'

President Obama has responded forcefully to the Newtown, Conn., shootings this past week. He assigned Vice President Biden to come up with policies aimed at preventing future such tragedies. The president has also been trying to strike a budget deal to avoid the year-end "fiscal cliff."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning. Action last night in the House of Representatives suggests just how hard it could be to pass a solution to the tax increases and spending cuts due at the end of the year.

INSKEEP: House Speaker John Boehner has yet to reach a deal with President Obama, so he sought to put his own plan before the House last night.

GREENE: It was seen as a symbolic proposal to pressure the president, but because it included higher taxes for millionaires, many of his fellow Republicans said no, and Boehner could not even pass that.

INSKEEP: The Republican leader withdrew his bill, having to publicly admit he could not deliver the support of his own Republican members.

GREENE: Now it's not clear what happens as the House goes home for Christmas and a December 31 deadline approaches. We'll hear more about this now from NPR's Scott Horsley, who joins us. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So tell us how we got here. It looked like just a few days ago that the White House and Speaker Boehner were closing in on some bargain to avoid this so-called fiscal cliff.

HORSLEY: Yeah. It looks we're seeing a rerun of what happened in the summer of 2011. The president and the House speaker were closing in on a deal and then Speaker Boehner got cold feet, wondering if he had his caucus behind him. The speaker had agreed to accept higher tax rates on the wealthiest Americans, something Republicans have long opposed.

Mr. Obama had agreed to accept slower growth in Social Security benefits, which a lot of Democrats still oppose. And the two were really only a few hundred billion dollars apart, which is not exactly a rounding error, but it seemed to be a bridgeable divide. And then on Tuesday the speaker broke off negotiations and he spent the last three days pursuing what now turns out to be this fruitless attempt to pass Plan B.

GREENE: Well, Scott, we had our colleague, Mara Liasson, on the program yesterday and she talked about that both sides need to do some, you know, political posturing with both their bases. I mean, is that - could that be what we're seeing from Boehner? Is this just a huge defeat and it's going to be tough for him to go on from here?

HORSLEY: I think this is a big defeat for Speaker Boehner. The White House issued a statement last night saying the president will continue to work with Congress to try to ensure taxes don't go up. And they're hopeful that a bipartisan deal can still be worked out.

There is still a window - a small window - for some kind of big bargain like what the president and the speaker were negotiating, and sometimes it does take a few blowups before you get to a deal like that. But that kind of agreement, you know, is not going to win the votes of Tea Party Republicans in the House.

It could win a majority with Democratic support if Speaker Boehner were willing to bring it to the floor. That would take a level of statesmanship we have not seen so far and it could be the end of Speaker Boehner - his speakership. But, you know, freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.

GREENE: And I guess with only days left, I mean people can jump into action in ways that we don't necessarily expect.

HORSLEY: Yes. The alternative is we go over the cliff, taxes go up for everybody, and Republicans get the blame. That's no one's preferred option but, you know, the GOP bargaining position is only going to get weaker as time goes by.

GREENE: Scott, let's move to a different topic for a moment if we can. President Obama spoke about his overwhelming grief after the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. He's observing a moment of silence in honor of the victims this morning. I mean, what is your read about how he has responded as consoler-in-chief of the country?

HORSLEY: Well, he gave a heartfelt speech at the memorial service in Connecticut, where he spoke about the anxiety that parents feel when they send their kids out in the world. But you know, the speech was not just about condolences for the families. It was also a powerful call to action. He said as a country we have to do more to protect our kids.

And on Wednesday he announced that Vice President Biden will lead an effort to come up with some prescriptions to address gun violence. That includes maybe improved mental health care, some effort to tackle cultural forces that often glorify violence, and also some pretty specific gun control measures, including a renewed ban on assault weapons like the one used in Connecticut. And background checks for all gun sales.

GREENE: And he promised this would not be just another Washington commission that spends time on a report, you know, and then the report just gathers dust. I mean he wants action. Is that realistic?

HORSLEY: Right. He's trying to act while the public attention is focused on this issue. But you know, the politics is tough. There was a Pew poll out this week showing support for gun control has increased somewhat since before the Newtown shooting, but it's still far from overwhelming.

There's a big partisan divide here. Democrats are more supportive of gun control than Republicans. Women are much more supportive of gun control than men are. But Mr. Obama says he's not going to duck this issue, even if the politics are difficult.

GREENE: Scott, thanks very much.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, David.

GREENE: That's NPR's Scott Horsley.

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