Congress, Obama set to resume 'fiscal cliff' talks

Congress returns from its week-long Thanksgiving holiday on Monday, as lawmakers and President Barack Obama try to avert a looming fiscal crisis that could send the entire US economy plunging into recession again.

Officials in Washington are hoping to find a way to avoid what has been described as a year-end "fiscal cliff": a convergence of tax hikes and massive spending cuts, including slashes to the military, which some experts say could bring dire economic consequences -- possibly sparking another crippling economic slowdown.

Both Republicans and Democrats are well aware of the need for the country to get its fiscal house in order, as America tries to rein in a huge debt that has been growing bigger by the day and reduce deficit spending.

After months of stalemate, congressional leaders met on November 16 with Obama -- who is deemed to have a considerably stronger negotiating hand after handily winning reelection 10 days earlier.

Just five weeks now remain in the calendar year to conclude an agreement before the expiration of tax cuts put in place during the presidency of Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush.

Obama has said that any deal he concludes would have to include an increase in taxes on wealthy taxpayers, something congressional Republicans so far have rejected.

The plan he proposes -- and presented to voters on the campaign trail -- would raise the tax rate for top earners, but keep Bush-era tax rates for individuals who make less than $200,000 per year and families earning less than $250,000.

Republicans insist that raising taxes on the wealthy would be counter- productive and only serve to slow economic growth and ensure that the country continues to be plagued by economic stagnation.

They insist that higher taxes would dampen spending and hiring and investment by business owners.

The top income tax rate, which now stands at 35 percent, will automatically revert to 39.6 percent at the beginning of 2013 unless there is a new budget deal.

Republicans say they prefer to look at ways to bring in more tax revenue by completely overhauling the old and unwieldy US tax code, including closing what they say are "special interest loopholes" likely to hit the poor and the middle class as well as the rich.

Several economists also have said, however, that closing loopholes and ending deductions likely would not generate sufficient money to chip away at the $16-trillion national debt, and that a combination of tax increases and spending cuts will be needed.

Some experts said that there need not be a "grand deal" by the end of the year, because they could give themselves an extension by passing new legislation.

"Anytime Congress puts handcuffs on itself, it still has the key to those handcuffs. It can open the handcuffs anytime they want, or say. 'OK, we'll change the lock'," said Roberton Williams at the Tax Policy Center, an independent think tank.

"At this point the most likely scenario is some small compromise -- not a big grand compromise that solves all the problems, but something that says, 'We're going to get ourselves past January 1st, we'll raise taxes a little bit, we certainly won't let all the tax cuts expire.

"The question is how much and for whom?" said Williams, who served at the Congressional Budget Office from 1984 through 2006.

Further complicating efforts to reach a deal is the fact that Congress is in "lame duck" mode.

During the lame duck interregnum lasting several weeks after every election, outgoing lawmakers have only a few weeks to wrap up legislative business before they are out the door and the newly elected Congress is sworn in in January.

Another wrinkle is a pledge signed by numerous Republican lawmakers over the span of more than two decades, vowing never to vote for tax hikes.

There are signs however that some lawmakers -- now aware that they have been rendered utterly hamstrung by the pledge -- are re-thinking their position.

Grover Norquist, a powerful political player in the US budget debate, and his Americans for Tax Reform advocacy group organized the pledge-signing campaign, but there are signs of fraying support.

One prominent US senator, Saxby Chambliss, said in comments to a television station in his southern state of Georgia that he would be not bound by the promise.

"I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge," he said recently.

"If we do it his way then we'll continue in debt, and I just have a disagreement with him about that."

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