'Fiscal Cliff' Countdown: 4 Days Until The Plunge

So far there are no signs of a breakthrough in talks between Democrats and Republicans in Washington to stave off the tax hikes and spending cuts set to take effect on New Year's Day. President Obama has summoned top congressional leaders for talks at the White House on Friday.

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Four more days: That's how long Congress has to head off a calamity largely of its own making. If lawmakers do nothing, taxes jump next month for everyone earning a wage. At the same time, defense and domestic spending will shrink 10 percent, which economists say could push the economy back into recession.

In a last-ditch move to avert all of this, President Obama has summoned top congressional leaders to the White House today for talks. On Capitol Hill, the search for a solution is now focused on the Democratic-led Senate.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: News of today's White House fiscal cliff summit came near the end of a holiday season Senate session that was as dyspeptic as it was unusual. And yet Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman says Congress can still get its act together, especially now that President Obama's seizing the reins.

SENATOR ROB PORTMAN: I think there's time, and I think there's a way to get us through this first fiscal cliff and then establish the framework for dealing with the bigger fiscal problems we face.

WELNA: By Monday night.

PORTMAN: Yes. Yes. It would require, you know, the leadership working together. That's why presidential leadership is so important.

WELNA: Portman says President Obama played this role two years ago, forging an 11th-hour deal extending both tax cuts and unemployment insurance.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says this time, it will take more than presidential leadership to get things done.

SENATOR HARRY REID: Nothing can move forward in regards to our budget crisis, unless Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell are willing to participate in coming up with a bipartisan plan.

WELNA: So far, Reid said, those GOP leaders have only rejected President Obama's proposals. For something to move fast through Congress, Reid said both House Speaker John Boehner and GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell will have to get behind it.

REID: We can't negotiate with ourself, because that's all we're doing. Unless we get a sign-off from the Republicans in the House and the Republican leader here, we can't get anything done.

WELNA: For Republicans, today's meeting at the White House is something of a moral victory. Ever since Speaker Boehner failed last week to push his own version of a tax cut extension through the GOP-controlled House, he and McConnell had been saying it's up to the Democrats to make the next move. McConnell spoke yesterday on the Senate floor.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: We'll see what the president has to propose. Members on both sides of the aisle will review it, and then we'll decide how best to proceed.

WELNA: Democrats want assurances that McConnell and his fellow Republicans won't filibuster a last-minute attempt at a deal. The GOP Senate leader says that all depends on Democrats coming up with a proposal that's acceptable to both parties.

MCCONNELL: But the truth is, we're coming up against a hard deadline here. And as I said, this is a conversation we should have had months ago. And 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.

WELNA: For all the verbal sparring, some key Republicans sense a deal may be about to emerge.

(SOUNDBITE OF MSNBC BROADCAST)

REPRESENTATIVE TOM COLE: Well, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, there's so much manure around here, there's got to be a pony someplace.

WELNA: That's Oklahoma House Republican Tom Cole, a close ally of Speaker Boehner, appearing yesterday on MSNBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF MSNBC BROADCAST)

COLE: I actually think there's still a chance to get something done, and so, you know, these deals usually come together at the last moment. That's what happened in the budget deal, the debt ceiling deal, and I think that's what's going to happen again.

WELNA: The House held only a brief, pro forma session yesterday, which drew a protest from the Democrats' number-two leader, Steny Hoyer.

REPRESENTATIVE STENY HOYER: I would urge the speaker of this House to call us back in session...

(SOUNDBITE OF POUNDING ON DESK)

HOYER: ...to do what America expects us to do.

WELNA: A short time later, the speaker's office confirmed that the House will reconvene on Sunday night, whether or not the Senate has produced something for them to vote on.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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