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All sides are trying to head off the “fiscal cliff” — the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts on Jan. 1, followed a day later by $110 billion in automatic spending cuts.

Going over the cliff and staying there likely would plunge the country into a short, sharp recession, though delaying the spending cuts and tax increases would mean deeper pain in the long run, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The challenge for Mr. Obama and Congress is to try to spread the pain while doing the least harm to the economy.

Mr. Geithner’s separate meetings with congressional leaders marked the first major get-together between top negotiators since Mr. Obama called the leaders to the White House two weeks ago.

At the time, Mr. Boehner; Mr. Reid; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat; and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, met with Mr. Obama at the White House and emerged sounding optimistic about the chances of reaching a deal to extend tax cuts and replace the spending cuts, known as “sequestration,” that were set into motion through last year’s bipartisan deal to raise the nation’s borrowing limit.

But on Thursday, Republicans struck a different note.

Mr. McConnell accused the Obama administration of being more interested in appealing to the “hard left” than having a “serious discussion about how we fix the economy, reduce the federal debt and return the country to a path of growth and prosperity for all.”

Mr. Boehner said he is “disappointed” with the negotiations and warned that “there’s a real danger of going off the fiscal cliff.”

“Without spending cuts and entitlement reforms, it’s going to be impossible to address our country’s debt crises and get our economy going again and to create jobs,” he said. “So right now, all eyes are on the White House.”

The two parties also have staked out different positions on how best to increase the nation’s $16.4 trillion debt limit, which the federal government could reach as early as next month. Mr. Reid said that any agreement in the “fiscal cliff” talks must include an increase in the borrowing limit, while Mr. Boehner said any increase has to be matched dollar for dollar with spending cuts.

Democrats said they see signs of cracks in the Republican opposition to raising tax rates.

They pointed to Rep. Tom Cole, the Oklahoma Republican who is calling on his party to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for families making less than $250,000 a year, and then return to the negotiating table to fight to extend current tax rates for those making more.

“As Tom Cole said, let’s give a Christmas present to the American people,” Mrs. Pelosi told reporters.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, meanwhile, said Democrats don’t expect “the Republicans to be enthusiastic and start cheerleading about a deal that includes higher rates on the wealthiest Americans.”

“They’re not going to openly concede on this point this far out from the deadline, but they see the handwriting on the wall,” the New York Democrat said.

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