President Obama, in his weekly address today, reiterated much of what he told reporters yesterday after his last-minute "fiscal cliff" meeting with bipartisan congressional leaders, declaring, "I still believe we may be able to reach an agreement that can pass both houses [of Congress] in time."
"But if an agreement isn't reached on time," said Mr. Obama, "then I'll urge the Senate to hold an up or down vote on a basic package that protects the middle class from an income tax hike, extends vital unemployment insurance for Americans looking for a job, and lays the groundwork for future progress on more economic growth and deficit reduction."
After the president's meeting yesterday, he said he was "modestly optimistic" about the possibility that a deal would materialize. But in the absence of a broader agreement, he called on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to pass a "bare bones" bill.
In both his weekly address and his appearance yesterday, the president said that failure to act would be a "politically self-inflicted would to our economy" that we can ill afford amid signs that the economy is finally healing.
"Economists, business leaders all think that we're poised to grow in 2013," Mr. Obama said yesterday, "As long as politics in Washington don't get in the way of America's progress."}
And he took umbrage at the bickering in Congress, saying it poorly reflects the accommodating spirit of most Americans.
"Outside of Washington, nobody understands how it is that this seems to be a repeat pattern, over and over again," said Mr. Obama yesterday. "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 their disagreements. The notion that our elected leadership can't do the same thing is mind-boggling to them. It needs to stop."
He reinforced that chiding in today's address, saying, "You meet your deadlines and your responsibilities every day, the folks you sent here to serve should do the same."
Delivering the Republican response to Mr. Obama's address, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., laid the blame for Washington's dysfunction at the feet of Democrats. But he also sounded a sanguine note on the prospects of a budget agreement, saying, "We still can avoid going over the fiscal cliff if the president and the Democrat-controlled Senate step forward this week and work with Republicans to solve this problem."}
Blunt's cautious optimism mirrored that of his caucus chief, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who took to the Senate floor to declare he was "hopeful and optimistic" after his meeting at the White House yesterday.
Despite the rosy words from all sides, there remain many landmines on the road to an agreement. CBS News Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett reported yesterday that the main sticking point between Democrats and Republicans continues to be the income threshold beyond which taxes will increase. Mr. Obama opened the meeting yesterday by renewing his call to hike taxes on household income above $250,000, but Republicans have rejected that proposal and indicated they would like to nudge the threshold higher.
The extension of unemployment insurance, which expires today, remains another dispute between the two parties - Democrats and the president would elect to extend unemployment benefits for job-seekers; Republicans would not.
In addition, the $110 billion in automatic spending cuts due to begin on January 1 remain unaddressed. A Republican aide told CBS News that the cuts will move forward unless Congress adjusts them at a later date. The aide also said that raising the federal government's borrowing limit - the "debt ceiling" - will likely be left out of a final "cliff" agreement, setting the stage for another big fiscal dispute at the beginning of 2013.
And finally, even the "bare bones" agreement that the president requested as a backup plan faces an uncertain future on Capitol Hill. While Democrats hold a majority in the Senate and could likely persuade a few Republicans to join forces on a stopgap measure, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives remains a question mark - it is not at all clear that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, would bring a bill to the floor without a majority of his caucus behind him.
Lawmakers in both chambers are working behind the scenes today on the parameters of a deal and will be back in session tomorrow. A deal, if one comes together, could come up for a vote tomorrow or Monday.