* Republicans looking to gain advantage
* House set for final scramble before new year
By Thomas Ferraro and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, Dec 15(Reuters) - Mass murder in Connecticut silenced “fiscal cliff” talk on Saturday as the White House and Congress quietly got ready for a final scramble to avert the tax hikes and spending cuts set for the New Year, with sessions of the U.S. House of Representatives now scheduled just days before Christmas.
President Barack Obama canceled a trip he had planned to make next Wednesday to Portland, Maine to press his case for tax hikes for the wealthy. His weekly radio and Internet address on Saturday focused on Newtown, the site of Friday’s school shootings, in which a gunman killed 20 children and six adults before taking his own life.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio canceled the standard Republican radio response to Obama “so that President Obama can speak for the entire nation at this time of mourning,” he said in a statement issued late Friday.
The moratorium on cliff pronouncements masked a growing recognition that the two sides could remain deadlocked at the end of the year on the key sticking point - whether to leave low tax rates in place except for high earners, as Obama wants, or extend them for all taxpayers, as Boehner wants.
With multiple polls showing that the public supports Obama’s position, Republicans in the U.S. Senate prodded their counterparts in the House to make a face-saving retreat, in a fashion that would allow Obama’s proposal to pass the Republican-controlled House while simultaneously letting Republicans cast a vote against it.
Republicans could then shift the debate onto territory they consider more favorable to them, cutting government spending to reduce the deficit.
“Just about everyone is throwing stuff on the wall to see if anything sticks,” one Republican aide said with reference to various proposals being discussed on how to proceed. Alluding to public opinion polls, the aide added: “We know if there is no deal, we will get blamed.”
“We could win the argument on spending cuts,” said a Republican senator who asked not to be identified. “We aren’t winning the argument on taxes.”
However, Republican leaders in both chambers are leery about seeming to cave on taxes. “There’s concern that if we did that, Obama would simply declare victory and walk away and not address spending,” said one aide. “We don’t trust these guys.”
Some of the prodding was coming from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Don Stewart, a McConnell spokesman, said the minority leader in the Democratic-controlled Senate hasn’t embraced any single plan, but has discussed and circulated measures offered by fellow Senate Republicans.
“Senator McConnell does not advocate raising taxes on anybody or anything,” Stewart said.
“We’re focused on getting a balanced plan from the White House that will begin to solve the problem of our debt and deficit to improve the economy and create American jobs,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.
“Right now, all the president is offering is massive tax hikes with little or no spending cuts and reforms,” Steel said.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor scheduled “possible legislation related to expiring provisions of law,” a reference to the expiring tax cuts, for the end of the week, portending a weekend session.
Cantor has said the House would meet through the Christmas holidays and beyond.
Hopes expressed after the Nov.6 general election of some “grand bargain” on deficit reduction have all but disappeared, at least for this year. This is partly because time is running out and partly result of growing warnings from Democrats in Congress that they would not support big changes in the Medicare program, the government-run health insurance program for seniors that is a major contributor to the government’s debt.
House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California ruled out one frequently mentioned proposal - raising the age of eligibility for Medicare, in a Dec. 12 CBS television interview.
Asked if she was drawing a “red line,” around that idea, Pelosi said her comments were “something that says, ‘don’t go there,’ because it doesn’t produce money.”