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White House 'Hopeful' on Talks Even As McConnell Declares 'Impasse'

“People in both parties agree we need a ‘balanced approach’ to deal with our deficit and debt and help our economy create jobs,” Boehner said. “As we’ve seen in recent days, the American people support an approach that involves both major spending cuts and additional revenue via tax reform with lower tax rates. We look forward to talking to Mr. Bowles and other members of the coalition about their ideas to avert the ‘fiscal cliff’ without tax hikes that target small businesses and cost jobs.”

No Specifics

While McConnell was on the Senate floor practically begging Obama to present a new plan to bring the parties together, Carney stonewalled on several questions.

“I’m not going to get into specifics,” he said.

He refused to detail which changes the president would be willing to make on entitlements; the White House continues to have no position on whether to extend the payroll tax cut, and there are no meetings scheduled with the top Congressional leaders. Carney dismissed the value of such meetings as well as the value of the president’s reaching out to members of Congress for “cocktails” to try to resolve the situation. Carney said the idea that everything can be solved over drinks is more appropriate to 1801 than to modern Washington.

The White House in the meantime released a new study warning that not extending the Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class would reduce consumer spending by about $200 billion next year; it ignored the potential impact of not extending the payroll tax cut.

Alan Krueger, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, could not say whether extending the payroll tax cut would be better for the economy than the Bush tax cuts, although he reiterated the White House’s non-position on the payroll tax cut — that extending it remains “on the table” for discussion. Krueger did say that the payroll tax cut helped the economy this year, contributing to the highest level of consumer confidence in four years.

Top White House aides met with senior business leaders Monday to talk about the fiscal cliff; among them were U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue and John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable. Aides on the Hill see pressure from the business community as key to getting votes for any year-end package.

Senate Republican sources said that much of the staff-level conversation to date has been between Boehner’s office and the White House. One source said they are playing a “secondary role.”

“Our people are in the room” but are mostly deferring to House Republicans, the source said, adding, “When we aren’t in meetings, Boehner’s people are filling us in.”

Sorting It Out

As for this week’s schedule, most of it seemed up in the air on Monday, with staffers and principals filtering back to Washington from vacation and trying to map out a path toward an agreement in the next few weeks.

The staff talks that happened over the break focused largely on the broad but contentious policy pieces of any big agreement, with Democrats tasked with coming up with entitlement options and Republicans searching for acceptable revenue raisers.

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