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President Obama says he still holds out hope that a deal can be reached to avoid automatic tax hikes and spending cuts before the first of the year. Budget talks are in disarray as Congress heads home for the holidays and the president and his family head to Hawaii.
Before leaving tonight, the president urged lawmakers to use the next few days to take a step back from the fiscal cliff.
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BLOCK: NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now from the White House. And, Scott, the president also called himself a hopeless optimist, What's he hoping for in particular?
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, he's asking congressional leaders to come up with a scaled-down plan that would do a few things - preserve the Bush era tax cuts on income up to a quarter million dollars, that would extend unemployment insurance to people who need it and that would lay the groundwork, he said, for futur defecit-cutting moves. Now, this will be a less ambitious package than the grand bargain he was trying to negotiate with John Boehner, the Republican House Speaker. But it's a package the president says could get done in the 10 days or so we have left before New Year's.
BLOCK: Just to be clear, he's now talking about a lower threshold for that tax break, it was $400,000 and now it's down to 250,000?
HORSLEY: Well, he talked about 98 percent of the people. And that's what you get if you use the $250,000 threshold. I think, you know, once the speaker walked away from the bargaining table, I think the president's concession to 400,000 is off the table.
BLOCK: Well the president did talk with House Speaker John Boehner today, their first conversation since early this week, right?
HORSLEY: That's right. They seemed, earlier in the week to be on course to really making a deal. And then Speaker Boehner got cold feet, wondered if he had the backing of his fellow Republicans in the House, and then really kind of squandered three important days in the middle of this week, pursuing what turned out to be a fruitless effort to pass what he called Plan B.
BLOCK: And that failed because he didn't have the votes among his Republican caucus.
HORSLEY: That's right. Now it's still possible that he's going to need Democratic votes to pass what the president's talking about putting forward.
BLOCK: Well, Scott, with the budget still in limbo, the president also turned his attention to foreign policy today and he nominated Massachusetts Senator John Kerry to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.
HORSLEY: Yes. And, you know, amidst all this partisan rancor, John Kerry is sort of the rare consensus candidate. He has, of course, strong support among Democrats, but also Republicans in the Senate. He chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will hold hearings on his nomination. He's a decorated war veteran and he's expected to sail through the Senate confirmation processs.
BLOCK: One last thing, Scott, the president joined many across the country this morning in observing a moment of silence for the victims of the school shooting last week in Newtown, Connecticut. What else is he doing or what does he say he will do to address the issue of gun violence?
HORSLEY: Well, he is really putting some political capital into this cause and he said that that's what it's going to take. There have been hundreds of thousands of people who have gone to the White House website to sign online petitions calling for government action to address gun violence. And in a video reply to those petitioners this morning, the president said it's going to take the American people really speaking up.
We saw in the response of the National Rifle Association today the kind of obstacles that will be in the path of any effort to, for example, strengthen gun control. And Mr. Obama says if anything like that's going to happen, it's going to take a lot of active engagement by the public. And he's promised active engagement by his administration. Of course, Vice President Biden is going to chair a task force that is expected to come up with recommendations by next month.
BLOCK: OK. NPR's Scott Horsley at the White House. Scott, thanks.
HORSLEY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.