U.S. "fiscal cliff" talks are now just between House Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama to streamline the discussions, aides and lawmakers said.
"This is now the speaker and the president working this through," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, told The New York Times.
Limiting the talks to Obama and the Ohio Republican improves the chances of success, officials on all sides -- including those excluded -- told the newspaper, because it minimizes the number of people who need to go along with an initial agreement.
The most recent talks included Obama, Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
White House aides and Boehner's staff also agreed to all but shut down public communication about the talks. Both sides said Thursday the "lines of communication" were open.
The president and speaker are seeking to resolve an impasse over the cliff to avoid more than $500 billion in spending cuts and tax increases from kicking in right after the New Year.
Obama Thursday went to the home of a middle-income family in the Virginia suburbs of Washington to press for an extension of expiring tax cuts for the middle class -- and for the expiration of so-called George W. Bush-era tax cuts on incomes over $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."
Obama is not only insisting Republicans agree to higher tax rates for the wealthy. He also wants a deal that address the $16.4 trillion debt limit. Federal borrowing is on track to hit that limit early next year.
Without an increase in the debt ceiling, the government would default on its obligations.
Republican lawmakers see this as giving them bargaining power in the budget talks, The Washington Post reported, so they're resisting any increase in the limit unless the White House makes concessions, such as agreeing to deep spending cuts.
Obama warned them Wednesday not to pursue a course that would set up a fresh battle over the debt limit, like the U.S. debt-ceiling crisis of July and August 2011, which Obama called a "catastrophe."
Boehner has said any debt-ceiling increase should be matched dollar for dollar with new spending cuts.
Boehner made an offer to the White House this week that called for $2.2 trillion in deficit reductions, which the Post noted was not enough to offset the needed debt-limit increase.
The U.S. government has $16.3 trillion in debt, putting it just beneath the $16.4 trillion limit set by Congress. The government is expected to run out of emergency measures to avoid hitting the debt ceiling by February or March, the Congressional Budget Office has said.
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