'Fiscal cliff' deal unlikely to come easy

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WASHINGTON -- The showdown over the "fiscal cliff" begins in earnest as Congress reconvenes Monday and both parties prepare for what could be weeks of grueling, high-stakes negotiations with a deadline of Dec. 31.

Unless lawmakers act by year's end on the expiring Bush tax cuts and the automatic defense and domestic spending reductions, forecasters warn the country will be plunged into another recession and unemployment will soar to 9.1 percent.

As the lame duck session opens, the big question is whether Republicans and Democrats are ready to actually compromise and strike a deal, said Anthony McCann, a federal budget expert who teaches at Georgetown University and the University of Maryland.

"It's going to be difficult," he said, noting the rancorous battle over the past two years in Congress by two parties that have few moderates.

President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) pledged Friday to work together to reach an agreement, saying they are open to new ideas and are not tied to their own plans.

But these two key players, who tried but failed to reach a "grand bargain" last year, remain far apart on key issues.

Obama still demands higher tax rates on "wealthier Americans," which Republicans reject. Boehner demands "entitlement reform" that could restructure Medicare and Medicaid, which Democrats oppose.

And while Obama wants again to strike the "grand bargain" before the end of the year, Boehner wants a patch to resolve the deadlines on tax and spending cuts, but to push big issues such as tax and entitlement reform into 2013.

Representatives from Long Island say they're ready for a compromise, but say a deal will be up to their party leaders.

"We're going to work together, hopefully," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola).

Yet they also drew lines in the sand on the same key issues as Obama and Boehner.

Reps. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) and Peter King (R-Seaford) signed a bipartisan letter a year ago saying everything is on the table.

But last week, Bishop said, "I am not open-minded on Medicare. I do not believe in the privatization of Medicare."

And King said, "I'm opposed to raising tax rates."

Obama said he will hold the first face-to-face meeting with congressional leaders on both sides next Friday at the White House, but he also said he would hold meetings with representatives of business, labor and the middle class.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, said Obama probably will seek the support of business to put pressure on Republicans to seal a deal to remove uncertainty about the economy.

Both sides, he said, are exploring ways to resolve the issues of increasing tax revenue and reforming Medicare.

McCann, however, said it will be much more difficult to reach an agreement this year than it was to reach the landmark budget and tax deals in 1986, 1990 and 1997.

Back then, he said, a bridge over the partisan divide was created by moderates, including Democrats more conservative than liberal Republicans.

Still, he said, last Tuesday's election may make a difference.

Though both sides claim they won mandates from voters, McCann said it probably tips toward the Democrats and softens the GOP's hard-line stands.

"I have talked to an awful lot of my Republican colleagues, including conservative ones," McCarthy said, "and everybody agreed we have to do something, to have some sort of compromise."

King said the election seemed to have an effect on the GOP House caucus.

A year ago, he said, Boehner faced an uprising from hard-liners in his caucus when he tried to negotiate spending cuts and a debt ceiling increase.

"I think John has more flexibility now," King said. "Now that the election is over, and now that some of the Republican members have seen the reality of the campaign, they'll be more willing to compromise."

But Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Roslyn Heights), who is retiring after three decades in the House, expressed mistrust about the House GOP.

Last year's grand bargain between Obama and Boehner fell apart because of Republican hard-liners, Ackerman said. "They didn't allow Boehner to make a deal," he said.

"The big question is: Are they going to let him negotiate now, and are they willing to compromise?"

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