WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama says the U.S. economy cannot afford a tax increase on all Americans and is calling on congressional Republicans to support an extension of existing tax rates for households earning $250,000 or less.

Obama says he is confident that he and Congress can reach an agreement that avoids a so-called "fiscal cliff" on Jan. 1, when all tax rates would revert to Clinton-era levels and a series of deep spending cuts kick in.

Obama addressed the fiscal cliff at the opening of a news conference Wednesday in the White House.

In saying that the economy can't afford plunging into tax increases at the start of the year, the president distanced himself from some in his party who would prefer the tax increases and spending to occur to gain leverage.

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