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Obama blames Republicans as cliff talks go to wire

Stephen Collinson
US President Barack Obama speaks following a meeting with congressional leaders at the White House on December 28, 2012. Obama has put the blame squarely on Republicans for the failure so far to agree a deal to avert the fiscal cliff crisis, saying they can't bear to raise taxes on the rich.

US President Barack Obama blamed a Republican refusal to raise taxes on the rich for the "fiscal cliff" crisis as top lawmakers haggled in a desperate end-of-year search for a stop-gap deal.

Obama slammed foes in Congress as the clock ticked down to an automatic avalanche of tax hikes and slashing spending cuts coming into force Tuesday, which could throw the US economy back into recession and roil world markets.

"Now the pressure's on Congress to produce," Obama said in an interview with NBC's "Meet the Press" broadcast on Sunday but recorded Saturday. He barely concealed his anger that Republicans have refused what he sees as a reasonable compromise.

"So far, at least, Congress has not been able to get this stuff done," he added. "Not because Democrats in Congress don't want to go ahead and cooperate."

Obama said it had been "very hard" for top Republican leaders to accept that "taxes on the wealthiest Americans should go up a little bit, as part of an overall deficit reduction package."

The president's remarks did not seem hint that a deal that would set tax policy and chart deficit cutting measures in the long term was imminent.

As Obama's interview was broadcast, top Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate groped for a scaled back plan that would stop taxes going up on the middle class on Tuesday but leave most big budget questions unanswered.

Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would have to seal a deal by mid afternoon on Sunday for there to be time to get votes passed through the Senate and the House by January 1.

Obama has demanded a vote on his fallback plan -- a bare bones effort to save the middle class from a tax hike and to extend unemployment insurance, if no deal is done.

That would leave Republicans with the unpalatable political choice of being seen to block a bid to ease the tax burden on the middle class.

Entangled in divided Washington, where power is shared, Obama and Republicans have feuded for months over what to do about tax cuts for all Americans first passed by ex-president George W. Bush and due to expire on Tuesday.

Obama, sensing a mandate from his re-election last month, wants to raise taxes on the rich but exempt the middle class. Republicans want only to close tax loopholes to raise revenue and demand significant spending cuts in return.

But if nothing is done by the deadline, everyone will get a tax hike.

The president had said on Friday that he was "modestly optimistic" an eleventh hour deal could be done after meeting top congressional leaders at the White House.

But his tone in the interview suggested that if a pact cannot be reached, the president is ready to see the economy go over the fiscal cliff and blame Republicans for the damage likely to be caused.

While each side must for the sake of appearances be seen to be seeking a deal, the easiest way out of the mess might be to allow the economy to go over the cliff, but to fix the problem in the first few days of next year.

Under that scenario, Republicans who are philosophically opposed to raising taxes could back a bill to lower the newly raised rates on almost all Americans without formally hiking taxes on anyone.