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Updated Friday, December 7, 2012 at 06:29 AM

Obama holds firm on 'fiscal cliff': 'I'm not going to play that game'

By JONATHAN WEISMAN and PETER BAKER
The New York Times

WASHINGTON — At House Speaker John Boehner's request, Senate leaders and Rep. Nancy Pelosi have been excluded from talks to avert a fiscal crisis, leaving it to Boehner and President Obama alone to find a deal, congressional aides say.

All sides, even the parties excluded, say clearing the negotiating room improves the chance of success. It adds complexity as the two negotiators consult separately with the leaders not in the room. But it also minimizes the number of people who need to say yes to an initial agreement.

"This is now the speaker and the president working this through," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat.

White House aides and the speaker's staff, by mutual agreement, have largely shut down public communication about the talks to avert hundreds of billions of dollars in automatic tax increases and spending cuts set to begin in January if no deal can be reached. Both sides said Thursday that lines of communication remained open.

For public consumption, Democrats and Republicans are engaging in an increasingly elaborate show of political theater. Obama on Thursday went to the home of a middle-income family in the Virginia suburbs of D.C. to press for an extension of expiring middle-class tax cuts — and for the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts on incomes of more than $250,000.

"Just to be clear, I'm not going to sign any package that somehow prevents the top rate from going up for folks at the top 2 percent," Obama said. "But I do remain optimistic that we can get something done."

On Capitol Hill, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., moved Thursday to vote on Obama's proposal, in his broader deficit package, to permanently diminish Congress' control over the federal government's statutory borrowing limit, assuming that Democrats would break ranks and embarrass the president.

Instead, Democratic leaders did a count, found that they had 51 solid votes, and took McConnell up on what Sen. Harry Reid, of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, called "a positive development."

McConnell then filibustered his own bill, objecting to a simple-majority vote and saying a change of such magnitude requires the assent of 60 senators.

The government is expected to hit its borrowing limit in late January or early February, and it is an added complication in the deficit talks because some House Republicans say they will demand further spending cuts before they lift the debt ceiling. Obama has said any deal on taxes and spending must ensure that there will not be another crisis over the debt ceiling early next year.

But the administration on Thursday gave Republicans assurances the president would not employ a potent weapon to get what he wants.

Some Democrats, including former President Clinton, have theorized that the Constitution gives the president the authority to raise the debt ceiling unilaterally, citing a clause in the 14th Amendment guaranteeing that the nation's debts "shall not be questioned."

Obama renounced such an assertion of authority on Thursday through his spokesman. "I can say that this administration does not believe that the 14th Amendment gives the president the power to ignore the debt ceiling," Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said.

The Boehner-Obama arrangement has led to grumbling. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent and perhaps the Senate's most liberal member, said Thursday that Senate Democrats needed to find a way to make themselves more relevant to the search for a resolution to the so-called "fiscal cliff."


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