Top business leaders are warning politicians to stop the talk of heading over the fiscal cliff – referring to a combination of drastic spending cuts and tax increases on all Americans scheduled to hit in the New Year – and instead are pressing for a bipartisan deal.
"I hope everybody thinks through the idea of going over the cliff," said Tom Donahue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, speaking with reporters after his speech at the chamber's annual meeting on Thursday.
"It sounds macho, it sound tough. The bottom line is, we don't know how deep the cliff is and what the hell is at the bottom, and I think we ought to hedge our bets here," he said.
Donahue has already met with the Obama administration and top congressional officials to discuss the country's path forward and will continue to do so, he said.
"I spent a good deal of time [at the White House] and we had an excellent opportunity to explain what I said here, to talk about the problems of the cliff, to talk about the fact that they are not the only people who see the cliff not only as a problem but as an opportunity," Donahue said.
The chamber is a nonpartisan group, but champions business interests and did run ads during this year's election in support of some GOP Senate candidates. With the election over, however, Donahue said his interest is in striking a short-term deal to avoid the fiscal cliff and then support lawmakers on Capitol Hill in working on comprehensive tax reform over the next year.
"We told [White House officials] there was no line in the sand, but in no way bring us a deal or proposal that ups taxes or eliminates deductions and doesn't deal with entitlements. We've got to cut the rate of growth by making some changes that won't affect people in a negative way," he said.
In a White House appearance on Wednesday, President Barack Obama once again pressed for House Republicans to pass a measure ensuring tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans – those making less than $250,000 a year – would remain in effect rather than expire on January 1.
"Let's begin our work with where we agree," he said, flanked by a group of taxpayers invited to meet with him at the White House to talk about what the tax cuts mean to them.
"I want to assure the American people I'm doing my part," Obama said. "I'm sitting down with CEOs; I am sitting down with labor leaders; I'm talking to leaders in Congress. Our first job is to make sure that taxes on middle-class families don't go up. And since we all theoretically agree on that, we should go ahead and get that done. If we get that done, a lot of the other stuff is going to be a lot easier."
Most Republicans, though they are in favor of extending the tax cuts to middle-class Americans, have resisted the president's proposal because they fear it will make it harder to prevent taxes on those making more than that threshold from going up and also deal away part of their leverage when it comes to curbing entitlement spending. But as the days wear on, more and more conservatives seem open to the idea – most notably, Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma..
Donahue predicted the dance between Republicans and Democrats would continue until mid- to late-December before the two sides finally either broker or deal of cliff dive.
"Everybody's meeting. The bottom line is, I figure sometime between the 16th and the 18th and the 20th and the 22nd," he said. "I don't know exactly how we're going to get there."
During his speech to chamber members, Donahue was optimistic about the direction of the country, but also chastised both the public and private sectors for a dearth of leadership.
"If there is one deficit more serious and alarming than our fiscal deficit it is our leadership deficit," he said. "America needs leadership from all sectors to tackle the big challenges we face and to seize the extraordinary opportunities we have been blessed with. The American business community has a tremendous capacity to help provide this leadership and a profound responsibility to do so."
Obama travels to Pennsylvania on Friday to continue pressing his case for making tax cuts for those earning below $250,000 a year permanent.
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Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.