President Obama used a rare appearance on a Sunday talk show to accuse Republican lawmakers of protecting only the wealthiest taxpayers in negotiations to avoid the "fiscal cliff," even as some in the GOP conceded that Mr. Obama has won the battle over raising taxes.
"They say that their biggest priority is making sure that we deal with the deficit in a serious way, but the way they're behaving is that their only priority is making sure that tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are protected," Mr. Obama said of Republicans on NBC's "Meet the Press." "That seems to be their only overriding, unifying theme."
Senate leaders are working on a last-ditch package that would prevent tax increases for most Americans on Tuesday and avert automatic spending cuts also set to kick in next week. Mr. Obama has been unable to reach an agreement with House Republicans over his initial proposal to extend tax cuts only for families earning less than $250,000 per year, while the GOP has sought deeper cuts to entitlement programs than the president offered.
In the interview with NBC's David Gregory, recorded Saturday at the White House, the president said that if Senate talks break down, he expects Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, to bring up a bill Monday that would encompass Mr. Obama's original proposal only for middle-class tax cuts.
"Republicans will have to decide if they're going to block it, which will mean that middle-class taxes do go up," Mr. Obama said. "I don't think they would want to do that politically, but they may end up doing it. If all else fails, if Republicans do in fact decide to block it so that taxes on middle-class families do in fact go up on Jan. 1, then we'll come back with a new Congress on Jan. 4, and the first bill that will be introduced on the floor will be to cut taxes on middle-class families. And I don't think the average person's going to say, 'Gosh, you know, that's a really partisan agenda on the part of either the president or Democrats in Congress.' I think people will say, 'That makes sense, because that's what the economy needs right now.'"
Some Republicans say Mr. Obama already has prevailed. Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said Sunday that Mr. Obama has "stood his ground."
"He won," Mr. Graham said on "Fox News Sunday." "He's going to get tax-rate increases."
Although Republicans have said repeatedly that Mr. Obama hasn't proposed significant deficit reduction, the president again insisted he has tried to meet the GOP halfway.
"The offers that I've made to them have been so fair that a lot of Democrats get mad at me," Mr. Obama said. "I offered to make some significant changes to our entitlement programs. ... At a certain point, if folks can't say 'yes' to good offers, then I also have an obligation to the American people to make sure that the entire burden of deficit reduction doesn't fall on seniors who are relying on Medicare."
In the interview, the president also addressed his plans for gun control in the wake of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that took the lives of 20 children and six adults. He reiterated his support for renewing a federal ban on assault-style rifles, implementing a ban on high-capacity magazines and instituting tougher background checks.
"I think anybody who was up in Newtown ... understands that something fundamental in America has to change," he said. "The question is: Are we going to be able to have a national conversation and move something through Congress? I'd like to get it done in the first year. I will put forward a very specific proposal based on the recommendations that Joe Biden's task force is putting together as we speak. And so this is not something that I will be putting off. ... And, yes, it's going to be hard."
Wayne LaPierre, chief executive officer and executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, said after the slayings that schools should consider arming adults to protect students from violence. Asked by Mr. Gregory if he supported armed guards in schools, Mr. Obama replied, "I am not going to prejudge the recommendations that are given to me. I am skeptical that the only answer is putting more guns in schools."
The interview also touched on Mr. Obama's team for his second term. The president said he hasn't decided whether to nominate former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Republican, to replace Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta. Some on the left have criticized Mr. Hagel for making disparaging comments in 1998 about a gay nominee for a diplomatic post.
"I've served with Chuck Hagel," Mr. Obama said. "I know him. He is a patriot. He is somebody ... somebody who served this country with valor in Vietnam and is somebody who's currently serving on my intelligence advisory board and doing an outstanding job. With respect to the particular comment ... he apologized for it. And I think it's a testimony to what has been a positive change over the last decade in terms of people's attitudes about gays and lesbians serving our country. And that's something that I'm very proud to have led."
Mr. Obama was considering the nomination of U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, but Mrs. Rice withdrew her name from consideration after several GOP senators criticized her explanations for the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans. Asked if he let Mrs. Rice "hang out to dry a little bit," Mr. Obama replied, "No."
"Why she was targeted individually, for the kind of attacks that she was subjected to ... was puzzling to me," the president said.
Mrs. Rice was criticized for telling the public on several Sunday talk shows that the attack grew out of anti-U.S. protests over a film that ridiculed Islam. She said she was relying on the best available intelligence at the time.
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