CAPITOL HILL — U.S. lawmakers are back from their Thanksgiving holiday break, and now have less than five weeks to negotiate a deal to prevent massive tax increases and deep spending cuts - known as the "fiscal cliff" - that will automatically take effect January 1. President Barack Obama is set to make his case to middle class Americans on higher taxes for the wealthy, as negotiations resume behind closed doors on Capitol Hill.
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin gave a speech on averting the fiscal cliff Tuesday at the Center for American Progress, a research institute, in Washington. Durbin called on Republicans in the House of Representatives to vote on a measure already passed by the Senate, that would prevent Bush-era tax cuts from expiring on most Americans, and only allow taxes to go up on incomes above $250,000 a year.
"With one vote, they can really avert the fiscal cliff for 98 percent of American families, at least when it comes to income taxes," said Durbin.
President Obama and congressional Democrats say the wealthiest Americans can afford to pay higher tax rates to help reign in American's trillion-dollar federal deficit. But Republicans oppose raising the tax rates for anyone and say what is needed is serious reform to entitlements - social programs for the elderly and the poor that Democrats strongly defend. Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said entitlements are threatening the nation's economic future and must be reformed to remain viable.
"We all know that the most critical steps to be taken are to save the entitlements, which are on an unsustainable path to bankruptcy," said McConnell.
Durbin conceded that progressive Democrats need to include social programs as part of any comprehensive solution to tackling the U.S. debt.
"Which means we need to be open to some topics, and some issues that are painful and hard for us to talk about," he said.
But Durbin made clear he believes that a major reform of social programs should not be part of a deal crafted by the end of the year to avert the fiscal cliff, but be taken up next year.
As the president prepared for a trip Wednesday to Pennsylvania to press his case before factory workers, Senator McConnell urged him to "stop campaigning" and take the lead on negotiations.
“So we’ll continue to wait on the president, and hope that he has what it takes to bring people together to forge a compromise. If he does, we’ll get there. If he doesn’t, we won’t. It’s that simple," he said.
Senator Durbin said he is optimistic the fiscal cliff can be averted, and that next year, lawmakers can agree on a major overhaul of government spending and taxes, that will send a strong signal to the world that the U.S. economy is strong.
For now, there is no deal in sight, and White House staff members are meeting with staff members of Republican House Speaker John Boehner to discuss the tough issues of taxes and spending.