WASHINGTON - Senate leaders rushed to assemble a last-ditch agreement to avoid middle-class tax increases and possibly delay steep spending cuts in an urgent attempt to find common ground after weeks of postelection gridlock.

The focus turned to the Senate after President Barack Obama held an hour-long, high-stakes meeting with the leaders of Congress on Friday afternoon to try to avoid the automatic austerity measures that begin to take effect Jan. 1 that threaten to send the economy sputtering into another recession

An impatient Obama pressed top lawmakers to cut a deal, even one that falls short of the ambitions he and congressional leaders may once have harboured for a bigger deficit reduction package. Without a resolution, he warned, "every American's paycheque will get a lot smaller."

"Congress can prevent it from happening, if they act now," he said in his weekly Saturday radio and internet address.

The U.S. faces the so-called "fiscal cliff" in January because tax rate cuts dating back to President George W. Bush's tenure expire on Dec. 31. The pending across-the-board reductions in government spending, which will slice money out of everything from social programs to the military, were put in place last year as an incentive to both parties to find ways to cut spending. That solution grew out of the two parties' inability in 2011 to agree to a grand bargain that would have taken a big bite out of the deficit.

Unless Obama and Congress act to stop them, about $536 billion in tax increases, touching nearly all Americans, will begin to take effect in January. That will be coupled with about $110 billion in spending cuts, about 8 per cent of the annual budgets for most federal departments. Economists predict that if allowed to unfold over 2013 this double whammy would result in a big jump in unemployment, financial market turmoil and a slide back into recession.

Facing a deadline that was born out of Washington's dysfunction, success was far from guaranteed — even on a slimmed-down deal that postponed hard decisions about spending cuts into 2013 — in a Congress where lawmakers grumbled about spending the new year holiday in Washington.

Following Friday's White House meeting, aides to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, began racing against the clock for a bipartisan bargain. The leaders could present legislation to senators as early as Sunday, with a vote possible on Sunday or Monday.

Adding pressure was this week's warning from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner that the government would hit its $16.4 trillion borrowing limit on Monday, the final day of the year. That would make it harder for the U.S. to pay its bills.

The guest list for the White House meeting included Reid, McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner, and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. But the key players were clearly Reid and McConnell, both of whom stayed behind briefly at the White House and huddled with their staffs and Obama's top legislative aide, Rob Nabors, in the West Wing Cabinet Room just outside the Oval Office.

Neither side expected compromise to be easy. However, McConnell and Reid voiced unexpected optimism that they could work toward a deal that could win support in both their camps.

Warned Reid: "Whatever we come up with is going to be imperfect."

Looking to add pressure on negotiators, Obama said that absent a compromise he expects Reid to put legislation on the floor to prevent tax increases on the middle class and extend unemployment benefits — an implicit challenge to Republicans to dare to vote against what polls show is popular.

Speaking for Republicans in a Saturday radio address, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri sought to put the burden of a deal on Obama and Reid.

"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 and solve it now," he said.

Whatever manages to pass in the Senate, with its Democratic majority, would then face a second test in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Boehner, a Republican speaker who has struggled recently with anti-tax rebels inside his own party, said through an aide that he would await the results of the talks between the Senate and White House. A House vote could come as late as Wednesday, the final full day before a new Congress takes office.

Officials said there was a general understanding that any agreement would block scheduled income tax increases for middle-class earners while letting rates rise at upper-income levels.

Obama was sticking to his campaign call for increases above $250,000 in annual income, even though in recent negotiations he said he could accept $400,000.

The two sides also confronted a divide over estate taxes. Obama favours a higher tax than is currently in effect, but one senior Republican, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, said he's "totally dead set" against it. Speaking of fellow Republican lawmakers, he said they harbour more opposition to an increase in the estate tax than to letting taxes on income and investments rise at upper levels.

But the estate tax was more likely to be used as a possible bargaining chip that Democrats could give away in exchange for higher rates for top earners and other Obama priorities.

Obama and Democrats want to prevent the expiration of unemployment benefits for about 2 million long-term jobless men and women, and there is widespread sentiment in both parties to shelter doctors from a 27 per cent cut in Medicare fees. Medicare is the government-funded program that provides health care coverage to the elderly.

Also likely to be included in the negotiations are taxes on dividends and capital gains, both of which are scheduled to rise with the new year.

One Republican who was briefed on the White House meeting said Boehner made it clear he would leave in place spending cuts scheduled to take effect unless alternative savings were included in any compromise to offset them. In previous White House proposals, Obama has suggested finding enough cuts in government spending to put off the steeper cuts for up to six months.

Obama, speaking to reporters following his meeting with the congressional leaders, faulted a system that left crucial decisions to the last minute, a way of governing that he said the public finds "mindboggling."

"Outside of Washington nobody understands how it is that this seems to be a repeat pattern, over and over again," he said.

Still, Obama himself is part of the negotiating process, and his meeting with all four top leaders Friday was the first since Nov. 16. A phone call he placed Wednesday night to McConnell was the first the Republican leader had received from a Democrat on the fiscal talks since the Thanksgiving holiday in late November.

Looking to add pressure on negotiators, Obama said he expects Reid to put legislation on the floor to prevent tax increases on the middle class and extend unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless — an implicit challenge to Republicans to dare to vote against what polls show is popular.

The start of negotiations in the Senate marked a new endgame for discussions that have moved in fits and starts since the November election.

Boehner refused for weeks to accept any tax rate increases, and simultaneously accused Obama of skimping on the spending cuts he would support as part of a balanced deal to reduce deficits, remove the threat of spending cuts and prevent the across-the-board tax cuts.

Last week, Boehner presented a Plan B measure that would have let rates rise on million-dollar earners, well above Obama's latest offer for a $400,000 threshold.

Facing defeat after he couldn't muster enough support in the Republican caucus, Boehner scrapped plans for a vote, leaving the economy on track for the cliff that leaders in both parties had said they want to avoid.

___

Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn, David Espo, Alan Fram and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.

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  • Military Health Care - $16 Billion

    In his last offer to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), President Barack Obama lobbied for $16 billion in cuts from the military's health care program, TRICARE. In 2012, the president also proposed hiking fees for military personnel and veterans who receive benefits under the program in an effort to help cut the defense budget. His proposal drew significant fire from Republican lawmakers and veterans' groups.

  • Military Retirement Program - $11 Billion

    Both sides agreed to cuts from the military retirement program. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) claimed during July 2011 talks that lawmakers had reached a tentative deal to slash <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">$11 billion</a>. Under the current system, military personnel receive immediate retirement benefits after serving for 20 years. According to a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office, the appropriation cost per active military service member has <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/publication/43574" target="_hplink">increased at a higher rate</a> than either inflation or the total pay package of private-sector employees. Given the budget constraints looming before the Defense Department, the CBO floated the idea of transitioning the military retirement program to a matching-payment model.

  • Federal Employee Retirement Program - $33 -$36 Billion

    Cantor claimed that Republicans and Democrats had agreed to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">$36 billion in savings</a> over 10 years from civilian retirement programs. The president proposed a marginally more modest figure of <a href="http://presspass.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/11/15089281-white-house-grand-bargain-offer-to-speaker-boehner-obtained-by-bob-woodward#.UKCJftkTtS8.twitter" target="_hplink">$33 billion</a> in his final offer to House Speaker John Boehner. Just this year, Republicans in the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform also looked to find savings from the Federal Employee Retirement System by <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/federal-eye/post/house-committee-approves-measure-upping-federal-employee-contributions-to-retirement-plan/2012/04/26/gIQAuoW6iT_blog.html" target="_hplink">requiring employees to pay more of their salary</a> into their pensions, which Democrats opposed as a pay cut that would make civil service less attractive for top talent. In September 2011, the federal government employed <a href="http://www.fedscope.opm.gov/cognos/cgi-bin/ppdscgi.exe?DC=Q&E=/FSe%20-%20Status/Employment%20-%20September%202012&LA=en&LO=en-us&BACK=/cognos/cgi-bin/ppdscgi.exe?toc=%2FFSe%20-%20Status&LA=en&LO=en-us" target="_hplink">over two million individuals</a>, either through the cabinets or independent agencies. Many Republicans have complained that the federal workforce has ballooned during the Obama administration, and while the raw number of employees has risen by <a href="http://www.thefactfile.com/2012/01/23/the-size-of-the-federal-workforce-rapid-growth-for-some-stagnation-for-others/" target="_hplink">14.4 percent</a> between Sept. 2007 and Sept. 2011, the percentage of public employees out of the total civilian workforce has <a href="http://www.thefactfile.com/2012/01/23/the-size-of-the-federal-workforce-rapid-growth-for-some-stagnation-for-others/" target="_hplink">remained fairly constant</a> around 1.2 percent since 2001. Much of the raw growth has been concentrated in the Department of Defense, Veteran's Affairs and Homeland Security.

  • Agricultural Subsidies - $30 - $33 Billion

    Democrats and Republicans agreed to cut as much as <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/12/fiscal-cliff-barack-obama-_n_2118739.html" target="_hplink">$30 billion</a> from agricultural subsidies; the main opposition fell along geographical lines rather than partisan ones. Hailing from an agriculture-heavy state, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) threatened to pull out of talks entirely if a deal included that much in subsidy reduction. The president ended up pushing for <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">$33 billion in cuts</a>, but that figure also included reductions in conservation programs. Baucus now tells HuffPost any cuts should be made through the farm bill, not fiscal cliff talks.

  • Food Stamps - $2 to $20 Billion

    Cantor pushed hard for significant cuts to food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. He charged that the federal government could save as much as <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">$20 billion over ten years</a> by eliminating waste and fraud, but the White House countered that the real number was closer to $2 billion. Instead, those cuts would force the program to scale back on the number of enrollees and the level of benefits it could offer.

  • Flood Assistance - $4 Billion

    Obama proposed cutting <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/12/fiscal-cliff-barack-obama-_n_2118739.html" target="_hplink">$4 billion from flood assistance</a> funding in his final offer to Boehner in July 2011. But Hurricane Sandy straining the National Flood Insurance Program; The New York Times <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/13/nyregion/federal-flood-insurance-program-faces-new-stress.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0" target="_hplink">reports</a> that thousands of claims are being submitted daily, which could send the overall cost upwards of $7 billion for a program that suffers from a ballooning debt problem. And with climate change promising <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/capital-weather-gang/post/climate-change-predictions-foresaw-hurricane-sandy-scenario-for-new-york-city/2012/10/31/b78de428-2374-11e2-ac85-e669876c6a24_blog.html" target="_hplink">future flooding disasters</a> along the eastern seaboard, cutting the program looks unwise.

  • Home Health Care - $50 Billion

    The president offered to cut <a href="http://presspass.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/11/15089281-white-house-grand-bargain-offer-to-speaker-boehner-obtained-by-bob-woodward#.UKCJftkTtS8.twitter" target="_hplink">$110 billion over the next decade</a> from the government's health care spending, excluding Medicare. Among the programs that could lose crucial funding is home health care, where Democrats and Republicans agreed to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">$50 billion in reductions</a> over ten years. Cantor pushed for closer to $300 billion in spending cuts to health care, but Democrats appeared to stand firm.

  • Higher Education - $10 Billion

    The president proposed cutting <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/12/fiscal-cliff-barack-obama-_n_2118739.html" target="_hplink">$10 billion from higher education</a> over the next decade, mostly from Pell grants. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/27/pell-grants-college-costs_n_1835081.html" target="_hplink">Over nine million students</a> relied on federal subsidized loans to afford college during the 2010-2011 school year, and the skyrocketing costs have continued to diminish the purchasing power of the Pell grant program. Obama has actively worked to make college more affordable for lower-income students. Key Republican lawmakers have attempted to cut funding for student loans; most notably, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) slashed the maximum award from $5,550 per student per year down to <a href="http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/07/dems_students_fight_to_save_pell_grants_amidst_debt_ceiling_talks.html" target="_hplink">just $3,040</a>.

  • Medicaid And Other Health- $110 Billion

    The original funding levels proposed by Cantor and the GOP leadership would turn the entitlement program for America's poor into little more than a block grant program, Democrats claimed during the 2011 debt ceiling talks. Under such a program, they argued that states would then <a href="http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-09-11/medicaid-to-lose-1-26-trillion-under-romney-block-grant.html" target="_hplink">drop more people from enrollment</a> and scale back on health benefits. In fiscal year 2009, <a href="http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0151.pdf" target="_hplink">over 62 million Americans</a> -- many of them children -- depended on Medicaid for their health care. But the president did agree to <a href="http://presspass.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/11/15089281-white-house-grand-bargain-offer-to-speaker-boehner-obtained-by-bob-woodward#.UKCJftkTtS8.twitter" target="_hplink">$110 billion</a> in cuts from Medicaid and other health programs.

  • Medicare - $250 Billion +

    Republicans pushed for a drastic overhaul to the entitlement program for America's seniors. Ryan infamously proposed turning Medicare into little more than a voucher system in which seniors would receive checks to purchase their own health care on the open market -- a plan that would ultimately <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kennethdavis/medicare-vouchers_b_1947804.html" target="_hplink">force individuals to shoulder more of the burden</a> for their health care costs. Democrats refused to accept changes similar to those in Ryan's plan. The president, however, was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">more open to other GOP suggestions</a> on Medicare. In his final offer to Boehner, he agreed cut $250 billion over the next ten years -- in part by increasing premiums for higher-income seniors and by raising the eligibility age from 65 to 67 (although over a longer time frame).

  • Tax Reform - $800 Billion - $1.6 Trillion

    Republicans have again and again <a href="http://www.politico.com/blogs/politicolive/0511/Boehner_Medicare_Medicaid__everything_should_be_on_the_table_except_raising_taxes.html" target="_hplink">decried any attempt</a> to raise taxes, either on the highest earners or on corporations. (A Democracy Corps/Campaign for America's Future survey shows that <a href="http://www.ourfuture.org/report/2012114508/cafdemocracy-corps-election-poll-2012" target="_hplink">70 percent of voters</a> support raising taxes on the wealthiest two percent of Americans.) Instead, Boehner has pushed for a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">comprehensive tax reform bill</a> that would lower the marginal tax rates while closing loopholes and eliminating deductions in order to raise around $800 billion in additional revenues. For many Democrats, <a href="http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323551004578117152861144968.html" target="_hplink">that figure simply isn't enough</a>. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney announced Tuesday that the president was aiming for as much as <a href="http://takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/13/showing-backbone-on-the-debt/" target="_hplink">$1.6 trillion in new revenues</a>, and the president told reporters on Wednesday that it would be <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/14/obama-tax-cuts_n_2131256.html" target="_hplink">practically impossible</a> to raise the amount of revenue he wanted simply from closing loopholes and lowering rates.

  • Social Security - $112 Billion

    Social Security <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/14/fiscal-cliff-social-security_n_2130762.html?utm_hp_ref=mostpopular" target="_hplink">isn't driving the deficit</a>, yet Republicans have <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">pursued drastic changes</a> to the program. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has promised that Social Security would be <a href="http://livewire.talkingpointsmemo.com/entry/reid-no-messing-with-social-security" target="_hplink">off the table</a> in the on-going negotiations to avoid the fiscal cliff, but Obama did concede to tying the benefits to a <a href="http://presspass.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/11/15089281-white-house-grand-bargain-offer-to-speaker-boehner-obtained-by-bob-woodward#.UKCJftkTtS8.twitter" target="_hplink">recalculated Consumer Price Index</a> that would ultimately provide less money to retirees. Sen. Bernie Sanders claims that, under such a measure, seniors who are currently 65 years-old would see their benefits drop by <a href="http://thehill.com/homenews/senate/267079-reid-assures-sanders-he-wont-agree-to-social-security-cuts-in-debt-deal" target="_hplink">$560 a month in 10 years</a> and by as much as <a href="http://thehill.com/homenews/senate/267079-reid-assures-sanders-he-wont-agree-to-social-security-cuts-in-debt-deal" target="_hplink">$1,000 in 20 years</a>. The Moment of Truth project (led by the two former co-chairs of the president's deficit reduction commission, former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles) claims that the recalculated CPI could save as much as <a href="http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/11767/the_social_security_cut_washington_does_not_want_you_to_understand/" target="_hplink">$112 billion</a> from Social Security over the next ten years.

  • Tax Loopholes And Deductions - Up To $180 Billion

    Although Cantor and other GOP House members demanded that any deficit-reduction deal brokered in 2011 be classified as <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/fiscal-cliff-talks-medicare-social-security_n_2113259.html" target="_hplink">revenue-neutral</a>, they were open to closing particular loopholes in the corporate tax code and limiting itemized deductions for individuals -- given that they were offset by other tax cuts. Out of the $50 billion in savings to be found over the next decade from closing loopholes, Cantor proposed getting $3 billion from eliminating the break for corporate-jet owners and another $20 billion from voiding the subsidies for the oil and gas industries. On the individual earner side, he proposed eliminating the second-home mortgage deduction for $20 billion, as well as limiting the mortgage deduction for higher-income households to rake in another $20 billion. He also offered to tighten the tax treatment of retirement accounts. But Democrats wanted to see even greater action taken on itemized deductions. In June 2011, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) proposed raising $130 billion in new revenues by capping itemized deductions at 35 percent for the highest income brackets. The GOP response to his proposal at the time was a resounding "no."

  • Bush Tax Cuts For The Wealthy - $950 Billion

    Set to expire on Dec. 31, 2012, the Bush tax cuts represent one of the most controversial elements of the so-called fiscal cliff. They added over <a href="http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2011/07/24/opinion/sunday/24editorial_graph2/24editorial_graph2-popup.gif" target="_hplink">$1.8 trillion to the deficit</a> between 2002 and 2009. Yet Republicans argue that an extension is necessary to create jobs and spur economic growth. But a <a href="http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/PDF/0915taxesandeconomy.pdf" target="_hplink">study</a> from the Congressional Research Service found that tax cuts for the wealthiest earners had little economic effect. The White House is pushing for a renewal only of those tax breaks for the lower- and middle-class Americans in order to save the average middle-class family <a href="http://money.cnn.com/2012/10/01/pf/taxes/fiscal-cliff-tax/index.html" target="_hplink">between $2,000 and $3,500</a> next year. Letting the cuts expire for those earning over $250,000 a year -- or the wealthiest two percent of Americans -- would haul in <a href="http://www.offthechartsblog.org/cbo-ending-high-income-tax-cuts-would-save-almost-1-trillion/" target="_hplink">$950 billion</a> in savings over the next decade, according to the CBO. Obama stressed how much the country stood to gain from such an approach Wednesday during a press conference. "If we right away say 98 percent of Americans are not going to see their taxes go up — 97 percent of small businesses are not going to see their taxes go up," he said. "If we get that in place, we're actually <a href="http://www.cnbc.com/id/49821777" target="_hplink">removing half of the fiscal cliff</a>."