Hill leaders voice new hopes for deficit deal

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The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- The White House and a key congressional Democrat hinted at fresh concessions on taxes and government benefit programs Wednesday as bargaining with Republicans lurched ahead toward avoiding the year-end "fiscal cliff" that threatens the economy.

Increasing numbers of rank-and-file Republicans said they were ready to give ground on a plan to reduce the deficit.

"I'll go anywhere and I'll do whatever it takes to get this done," President Barack Obama said as he sought to build pressure on Republicans to accept his terms -- a swift renewal of expiring tax cuts for all but the highest income earners. "It's too important for Washington to screw this up," he declared.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner also expressed optimism a deal could be reached. But for all the talk, there was no sign yet of tangible progress.

Boehner publicly disagreed with one GOP lawmaker, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who said he was ready to go along with Obama's plan to renew most but not all of the expiring income tax cuts.

"It'll hurt the economy" to raise rates for anyone, Boehner said.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, speaking to reporters before a session with business leaders, said the bargaining ought to begin where deficit talks between Obama and Boehner broke down 18 months ago "and go from there to reach an agreement."

She didn't say so, but at the time, the two men were exchanging offers that called for at least $250 billion in cuts from Medicare over a decade, and another $100 billion from Medicaid and other federal health programs. Among the changes under discussion -- with Obama's approval -- was a gradual increase in the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67, as well as higher fees for beneficiaries.

Obama has said he is open to alternatives to his current proposal to raise additional tax revenue. But he also says he will refuse to sign legislation that extends the current top rates on incomes over $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples.

At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney sidestepped questions on where Obama may be willing to give. "If I told you how much flexibility the president had, it would eliminate his flexibility," he said.

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