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Obama, Boehner discuss 'fiscal cliff'

WASHINGTON -- In their first meeting since Election Day, President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner conferred at the White House on Sunday on the nation's impending "fiscal cliff."

Spokesmen said they agreed not to release details of the conversation, but emphasized that the lines of communication remain open.

The meeting comes as the White House and Congress try to break an impasse over how to stop a combination of automatic tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to kick in at the beginning of next year.

The president has been pushing higher tax rates on the wealthiest Americans as one way to reduce the deficit, a position Boehner and other House Republicans have been steadfastly against. Republicans are demanding steeper cuts in costly government entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.

One GOP senator said yesterday that Senate Republicans would probably agree to higher tax rates on the wealthiest if it meant getting a chance to overhaul entitlement programs.

The comments by Bob Corker of Tennessee, a fiscal conservative who has been gaining stature in the Senate as a pragmatic deal broker, puts new pressure on Boehner and other Republican leaders to rethink their long-held assertion that even the very rich shouldn't see their rates go up next year. GOP leaders have argued that the revenue gained by hiking the top two tax rates would be trivial to the deficit, and that any tax hike hurts job creation.

But Corker said insisting on that red line, especially since Obama won re-election after campaigning on raising tax rates on the wealthy, might not be wise.

"There is a growing group of folks looking at this and realizing that we don't have a lot of cards as it relates to the tax issue before year end," Corker told "Fox News Sunday." If Republicans agree to Obama's plan to increase rates on the top 2 percent of Americans, Corker added, "the focus then shifts to entitlements and maybe it puts us in a place where we actually can do something that really saves the nation."

Besides getting tax hikes through the Republican-dominated House, Corker's proposal faces another hurdle: Democrats haven't been receptive to GOP proposals on the entitlement programs.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was skeptical Sunday about proposals to increase the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67. He said he doesn't see Congress addressing the complicated issue of Medicare overhaul in the three weeks remaining before the end of the year.

And hard-line fiscal conservatives in the House are holding fast to their position.

Still, at least one House Republican has said there is another way. Rep. Tom Cole, of Oklahoma, has said Obama and Boehner should agree not to raise tax rates on the majority of Americans and negotiate the rates for top earners later. Cole said yesterday that most House Republicans would vote for that approach because it doesn't include a rate hike.

"You know, it's not waving a white flag to recognize political reality," Cole said.

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