Washington - President Barack Obama pronounced himself cautiously "optimistic" Friday evening and said that progress had been made in make-or-break talks on the fiscal crisis, while Senate leaders worked furiously toward a bill to avert the worst of the economic punch from landing Jan. 1.
But after a one-hour meeting with congressional leaders at the White House, Obama warned that if the two sides don't agree on a bill, he will urge the Democrat-controlled Senate to put forward a measure anyway, in essence daring Republicans in the House and Senate to block a floor vote on tax cuts.
"I believe such proposals could pass both houses with a bipartisan majority as long as both leaders will allow it to come to a vote," Obama said. "If members want to vote no, they can."
Senators broke from a long huddle on the Senate floor with Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, to say progress had been made. McConnell, White House aides and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, were set to continue talks today aiming for a breakthrough as soon as Sunday.
"We're working with the White House, and hopefully we'll come up with something we can recommend to our respective caucuses," McConnell told reporters.
Reid also said there had been some progress but he warned that in assembling a measure that can win support from both parties, "what we come up with (will) be imperfect."
For all the cautious optimism, the president also expressed exasperation that four days before a looming deadline, which lawmakers have known about for a year and a half, the two sides are still far apart.
"This is deja vu all over again," he said. "America wonders why it is that in this time, you can't get stuff done in an organized timetable. The American people are not going to have any patience for a politically self-inflicted wound to our economy."
Obama took steps to keep the pressure on throughout the weekend, scheduling an appearance on Sunday's "Meet the Press" on NBC.
After meeting for just over an hour at the White House, the four congressional leaders - House Speaker John A. Boehner, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, McConnell and Reid - emerged, one by one into the chilly dusk. They avoided reporters and camera operators who were waiting and took swiftly to SUVs to exit the White House grounds.