Obama, Congress leaders to meet as fiscal cliff looms

US President Barack Obama will host top congressional leaders including his bitter Republican rivals on Friday in a last-ditch bid to halt America's slide over the "fiscal cliff."

The White House said he will meet his Republican foes House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Democratic allies.

McConnell and Boehner's offices also confirmed the 3:00 pm (2000 GMT) meeting, which comes amid bitter partisan exchanges and mounting pessimism over whether a budget deal can be struck before the year-end deadline.

"We'll see what the president has to propose. Members on both sides of the aisle will review it, and then we'll decide how best to proceed," McConnell said.

"Hopefully there is still time for an agreement of some kind that saves the taxpayers from a wholly preventable economic crisis," he said, referring to the massive tax hikes and spending cuts that will occur in the absence of a deal.

Reid and McConnell spent Thursday's public appearances blaming one another for the looming failure, with Reid warning that the US economy would likely slide off the cliff at the start of 2013.

"I have to be very honest," Reid told the Senate during a rare holiday week session. "I don't know time-wise how it can happen now."

On Wednesday, the president called each of the four congressional leaders hoping to inch forward on a deal, but lawmakers and their aides stressed there was little to no progress over the holidays.

Obama cut short his Christmas vacation in Hawaii only to return to a bitterly divided Washington unable to avert the more than half a trillion dollars in tax hikes and mandated spending cuts set to kick in on January 1.

McConnell told the Senate he was "happy" to look at any Obama proposal, but warned: "the truth is we're coming up against a hard deadline here."

Despite reports from some quarters that Obama had drawn up his own plan to offer lawmakers, there was no sign that the White House was ready to intervene.

Lawmakers have refused to compromise and Reid blamed Republicans for the breakdown.

Reid said Boehner was running a "dictatorship" in the House by refusing to put to a vote a Senate-passed bill which would prevent taxes from rising on all households making less than $250,000 per year.

He also took Boehner to task for keeping his members on vacation while the Senate was hard at work.

"Nothing can happen on the fiscal cliff" without McConnell and Boehner, "and so far they are radio silent," Reid said, urging Boehner to "put the economic fate of the nation ahead of your own fate as speaker of the House."

Boehner's office shot back with a curt message.

"Senator Reid should talk less and legislate more," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said, arguing the House has passed bills that would extend tax breaks for all Americans and replace the indiscriminate spending cuts.

"Senate Democrats have not," he added.

House leaders eventually ordered members to return to Washington on Sunday, warning that the House "may be in session through Wednesday, January 2."

A new Congress convenes on January 3.

The deadlock has spooked markets, left Americans wondering whether they will pay thousands more in taxes next year, and alarmed the Pentagon, which fears the looming defense cuts could undermine the military.

The stakes grew even higher when Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner warned this week that the nation will reach its $16.39 trillion debt limit on December 31, forcing the Treasury to take "extraordinary measures" to avoid a default.

Experts say a failure to strike a compromise by New Year's Eve could plunge the world's biggest economy into recession, and wrangling over the debt ceiling will only exacerbate fiscal uncertainty.

Obama has long pushed for an extension of the Bush-era tax breaks for households earning up to $250,000.

But most Republicans in Congress have signed a no-new-taxes pledge, and it was unclear how many would violate that oath in order to strike a deal.

Reid accused Boehner of wanting to go over the fiscal cliff and see all taxes rise, then allow Republicans to vote to reduce middle-class taxes to pre-2013 rates.

The Senate's newest member, Hawaii Democrat Brian Schatz, who was sworn in Thursday to fill the seat of late senator Daniel Inouye, said he was aiming at compromise.

"It's at this stage difficult to understand why we would inflict this on ourselves," Schatz said.

"I'm hoping that cooler heads will prevail and we will be able to avert this disaster."

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