LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer, in for Scott Simon. We have reached the last weekend of the year and Washington still has not reached a deal to avert the big tax hikes and spending cuts known as the fiscal cliff. President Obama met with top congressional leaders at the White House yesterday afternoon - John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi from the House; Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell from the Senate. It was a last-ditch effort to reach a bipartisan deal before the new fiscal realities kick in at year's end. When the meeting was over, everyone in the room expressed cautious optimism - emphasis on the cautious. In a moment, we'll hear from those leaders in Congress. First, here's NPR's Ari Shapiro from the White House where the president spoke to reporters following the meeting.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: President Obama sounded annoyed. His family is in Hawaii. Congress is gridlocked. Tax rates are about to go up on everyone. And this is hardly the first time Mr. Obama has been in this position - standing at the White House briefing room podium, asking lawmakers to finally, please, before time runs out, agree to his plan or cut a deal, and spare the world some gratuitous economic pain.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So, the American people are watching what we do here. Obviously, their patience is already thin. This is deja vu all over again. America wonders why it is in this town for some reason you can't get stuff done in an organized timetable, why everything always has to wait till the last minute. Well, we're now at the last minute.
SHAPIRO: His fuse was so short that when cameramen over his shoulder started murmuring to each other, the president stopped mid-statement to shush them.
OBAMA: Guys, I can hear you over here.
SHAPIRO: Yet, despite his obvious frustration, the president was willing to be positive about where things stood.
OBAMA: I just had a good and constructive discussion here at the White House with Senate and House leadership about how to prevent this tax hike on the middle class. And I'm optimistic we may still be able to reach an agreement that can pass both houses in time.
SHAPIRO: He said Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell are working together on a plan that could pass the Senate and possibly also get a vote in the Republican House. But if they can't cut a deal, the president said he wants an up or down vote on his offer from a week ago. That proposal would extend tax cuts on income up to $250,000 and keep federal unemployment checks coming in the new year.
OBAMA: I believe such a proposal could pass both houses with bipartisan majorities, as long as those leaders allow it to come up for a vote. If members of the House or the Senate want to vote no, they can. But we should let everybody vote. That's the way this is supposed to work.
SHAPIRO: An up or down vote means no filibuster in the Senate. And it means an open vote with both parties participating in the House. Neither seems likely at the moment. So, President Obama tried to make sure that if there is no vote, Republicans will get blamed.
OBAMA: It shouldn't be that hard since Democrats and Republicans both say they don't want to see taxes go up on middle-class families.
SHAPIRO: Poll numbers seem to support President Obama on this one. His approval rating is at 55 percent, a three-year high. Republican approval numbers have been sinking. And Americans say they would blame Republicans more than Democrats if Congress blows through this deadline. All of that combined makes the White House willing to take a dive over the cliff if it comes to that. But President Obama kept saying it doesn't have to come to that.
OBAMA: Ordinary folks, they do their jobs. They meet deadlines. They sit down and they discuss things and then things happen. If there are disagreements, they sort through the disagreements. The notion that our elected leadership can't do the same thing is mind-boggling to them.
SHAPIRO: The president then left the podium without taking questions. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.
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