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As cliff looms, both sides position on entitlements

Aides to House Speaker John Boehner refused to provide details about his face-to-face meeting with President Barack Obama Sunday morning about the fiscal cliff. NBC's Mike Viqueira reports.

WASHINGTON -- As the days dwindle before the U.S. reaches the fiscal cliff, Republicans and Democrats are jostling for position on long-term fiscal reforms even as they urge an emergency fix to dodge automatic spending cuts and tax hikes before the first of the year.

"The president wants the [tax] rates to go up. That doesn't solve the problem," House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said on NBC's Meet the Press. "We don't want to be back here in another year, in another ten years, answering the same questions."

While the public standoff continues between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, both sides are staking out their ground for a looming fight over entitlement reform even as some Republicans acknowledge that they may lose the short term debate over tax rates for the highest-income Americans. 


Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., one of the first Republicans to suggest allowing the president to raise rates on the top two percent of earners, reiterated Sunday that he could support a rate increase as part of a larger deal but accused Democrats of "lying to the American people" about the need for painful entitlement fixes. 

CNBC's John Harwood says it has become clear that Republicans will give ground on tax hikes for the wealthiest Americans, but the question remains what Obama will give them in return.

"You can't play the game and hide," he said on ABC's "This Week." "Medicare and Social Security and Medicaid, if those aren't fixed, if we're not honest about how to fix them and the fact that - yes -  everybody in this country will have to participate in some discomfort if we're going to get out of this ... it is dishonest and beneath anybody in Washington." 

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Coburn - along with Senate colleague Bob Corker, who said Sunday that accepting Obama's tax rate position may be the "best route for [Republicans] to take" -- urged the party to turn to the issues of entitlement reform and spending in the new Congress after the tax fight is resolved. 

Obama ally and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill. said on Meet the Press that reforms to the costly but popular Medicare system will be necessary to put the nation's finances in order but that a measured look at the program is needed rather than a quick fix. 

"We know that we have to do something, to make sure that we take an approach that doesn't voucherize it or take the approach of the Paul Ryan budget, but keep this a sound program and a solvent program. I just don't think we can do it in a matter of days here before the end of the year," Durbin said. "We need to address that in a thoughtful way through the committee structure after the first of the year." 

Assistant Majority Leader of the Senate Dick Durbin says the Democrats, President Obama are working hard to avoid going off the fiscal cliff.

Durbin acknowledged that he supports means testing for Medicare, a sliding scale that would offer fewer benefits for wealthy seniors and boost support for poorer recipients. But he also resisted GOP proposals to raise the retirement age as a way to chop substantial savings out of the costly Medicare price tag. 

"I listen to Republicans who say 'we can't wait to repeal Obamacare and the insurance exchanges,'" he said, noting that early retirees could face gaps in coverage during years of potentially poor health. "Where does a person turn if they're 65 years of age and the Medicare eligibility age is 67?" 

McCarthy, who -- along with most of his House Republican colleagues -- wants to keep even the top rates stable, said that public opinion is squarely in the GOP's corner when it comes to addressing the federal government's expenditures. 

"This is really about spending," he said.  "I don't think Republicans or Americans want to raise any taxes just to continue the spending in Washington. They want it more efficient, more effective, and more accountable."