WASHINGTON -- After meeting with the four top congressional leaders, President Barack Obama said Friday he was "modestly optimistic" a deal could be made to avoid the looming Monday -- New Year's Eve -- fiscal cliff deadline.
"The American people are watching what we do here," Obama said in the White House briefing room statement, taking no questions after the meeting.
Obama, sounding frustrated, said, "Obviously, their patience is already thin. This is déjà vu all over again. America wonders why it is that in this town, for some reason, you can't get stuff done in an organized timetable; why everything always has to wait until the last minute. Well, we're now at the last minute, and the American people are not going to have any patience for a politically self-inflicted wound to our economy. Not right now."
With Congress poised to miss the deadline, everyone in the nation who makes any money -- whether earned income or through investments -- will face tax hikes when tax breaks expire Dec. 31. About 2 million will see unemployment benefits end. Some taxes businesses pay will rise.
Also, a series of spending cuts will start to be automatically phased in, about $110 billion a year for 10 years -- that's $1.2 trillion -- with slashes aimed at the Pentagon and almost every federal agency.
Obama announced the framework of how Congress, frozen in inaction, would proceed over the weekend in order to try to get at least a stopgap measure passed.
The contours of such a basic package would probably maintain the tax breaks for 98 percent of earners -- households with incomes below $250,000. Obama had been willing to make the cut-off $400,000 -- but that would only come as part of a bigger, more comprehensive deal.
Obama said legislative action will start in the Senate, where there are better prospects for bipartisan agreement than in the House, where the chances are much lower, partly because of the rules -- formal and informal.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will try again to break the deadlock, negotiating over the weekend.
"But if an agreement isn't reached in time between Senator Reid and Senator McConnell," Obama said, "then I will urge Senator Reid to bring to the floor a basic package for an up-or-down vote -- one that protects the middle class from an income tax hike, extends the vital lifeline of unemployment insurance to 2 million Americans looking for a job, and lays the groundwork for future cooperation on more economic growth and deficit reduction.
"I believe such a proposal could pass both houses with bipartisan majorities as long as those leaders allow it to actually come to a vote. If members of the House or the Senate want to vote no, they can -- but we should let everybody vote. That's the way this is supposed to work. If you can get a majority in the House and you can get a majority in the Senate, then we should be able to pass a bill."
Obama's plea for that up-or-down vote is not that simple to execute and is a major reason for the congressional impasse.
The House and Senate rarely have an up-or-down vote on any measure.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) governs under the "Hastert Rule," named for former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), which calls for no bill to be called for a vote unless the majority party wants it passed.
The Senate, for practical purposes, does not operate under majority rule. That's because any member can threaten a filibuster. It just takes one. In order to avert a filibuster threat, a measure must have a supermajority -- 60 votes. Democrats hold the majority in the Senate but need GOP votes to get to 60.
For Obama, saying Reid will bring the basic package to the Senate floor for a vote even without a probable 60 votes, the president is daring the Republicans to filibuster the fiscal cliff legislation.
"We've had a constructive meeting," Reid said from the Senate floor. "We certainly hope that something positive will come from that."