Combative Obama knocks Republicans, says fiscal deal in sight

WASHINGTON Mon Dec 31, 2012 5:47pm EST

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the negotiations with Capitol Hill about the looming fiscal cliff while in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington, December 31, 2012. REUTERS/Larry Downing

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the negotiations with Capitol Hill about the looming fiscal cliff while in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington, December 31, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, in remarks that needled Republicans and resembled a victory lap, said on Monday an agreement with Congress to avoid a "fiscal cliff" of tax increases and spending cuts was in sight.

The Democratic president appeared at a White House event in the early afternoon with cheering supporters to press for lawmakers to complete a deal that would extend tax cuts for the middle class, raise rates for high earners and extend unemployment insurance for people seeking work.

"Today it appears that an agreement to prevent this New Year's tax hike is within sight, but it is not done," Obama said. "There are still issues left to resolve, but we're hopeful that Congress can get it done."

Hours later, however, a Democratic aide said skeptical senators from the president's own party had sought a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss the deal, and the House of Representatives appeared unlikely to hold a vote on Monday, suggesting the country would - at least technically - go over the cliff anyway.

Obama, who won re-election in November partially on a promise to increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans, made a point of noting in his remarks that the opposing party came around to his position on raising rates.

"Keep in mind that just last month Republicans in Congress said they would never agree to raise tax rates on the wealthiest Americans. Obviously, the agreement that's currently being discussed would raise those rates and raise them permanently," he said to applause.

Obama knocked Congress for waiting to the last minute to resolve the fiscal cliff problem and expressed, with some disdain, his regret that a bigger deal was not possible.

"My preference would have been to solve all these problems in the context of a larger agreement, a bigger deal, a grand bargain," he said. "But with this Congress, that was obviously a little too much to hope for at this time."

'SHARED SACRIFICE'

Obama's words and tone annoyed Republican lawmakers, whose support he is seeking for the deal to be done.

"I'm disappointed that the president took the eve of what might be a bipartisan deal to take a swipe at Congress once again," said Republican Representative Darrell Issa on CNN.

"That's not the way presidents should lead," said Republican Senator John McCain, Obama's rival in the 2008 election.

Obama had other jabs for Republicans.

While repeating his call for deficit reduction that did not hurt senior citizens and middle class families, Obama noted pointedly that he had won the election.

"If we're going to be serious about deficit reduction and debt reduction, then it's going to have to be a matter of shared sacrifice - at least as long as I'm president," he said. "And I'm going to be president for the next four years, I think."

The outlines of a deal in the U.S. Senate include raising income tax rates for individuals making more than $400,000 a year and households making more than $450,000 a year, but a sticking point remains on how long to delay automatic spending cuts to defense and domestic programs, known as a "sequester."

Obama stressed that a deal over spending cuts had to include tax revenue, echoing pledges he made on the campaign trail.

"Any agreement we have to deal with these automatic spending cuts that are being threatened for next month, those also have to be balanced," he said.

"That means that revenues have to be part of the equation in turning off the sequester, in eliminating these automatic spending cuts," he said, adding the same would be true for any future deficit-cutting agreement.

(Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal, Tabassum Zakaria, Roberta Rampton, David Morgan, David Lawder; editing by Todd Eastham)

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