As he prepares to meet Friday with congressional leaders on finding a way to avert the looming “fiscal cliff,” President Obama warned that the U.S. will plunge into a second recession if the GOP refuses to go along with his proposal to raise taxes only on wealthier Americans.
Mr. Obama, speaking to reporters at the White House in his first news conference since winning re-election, also delved a little deeper into plans for his second term, saying he hopes to begin working on immigration reform shortly after his inauguration in January, and to convene the best minds in the country to work on solutions to climate change.
But the most urgent challenge facing Mr. Obama and Congress is the fiscal cliff, a mix of tax increases and automatic spending reductions set to take effect in January. The president will host a meeting at the White House on Friday with congressional leaders of both parties to begin working on a deal to avoid a heavy blow to the economy, which is growing at a rate too slow to reduce unemployment significantly.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, says the GOP won’t agree to raise income-tax rates on any taxpayers, a position that hasn’t changed since Mr. Obama and lawmakers failed to reach a “grand bargain” on debt reduction in the summer of 2011.
Asked if he could envision the nation going over the fiscal cliff in January, Mr. Obama said it would be a result of Republicans’ unwillingness to compromise.
“We can all imagine a scenario where we go off the fiscal cliff,” he said. “If, despite the election, if despite the dangers of going over the fiscal cliff, and what that means for our economy, that there’s too much stubbornness in Congress that we can’t even agree on giving middle-class families a tax cut, then middle-class families are all going to end up having a big tax hike.”
Mr. Obama said he wants to see tax rates go up on those earning $250,000 or more, but the president said if he and Congress end up in a stalemate and all tax rates go up, it could plunge the country into a recession.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said it’s up to Mr. Obama to offer a concrete plan.
“The scope of this challenge calls for presidential leadership. That’s what the American people should be able to expect, and that’s what Republicans are calling for,” he said after Mr. Obama’s news conference.
On immigration, the president said the election results should help to persuade Republicans to work with him on comprehensive legislation. Mr. Obama won about 71 percent of the Hispanic vote over Republican Mitt Romney, the GOP’s worst showing among that demographic group in at least a decade.
“We need to seize the moment,” Mr. Obama said. “And my expectation is that we get a bill introduced and we begin the process in Congress very soon after my inauguration.”
He said a bill should include “a continuation of the strong border security measures,” penalties for companies that are purposely hiring undocumented workers, and a “pathway for legal status for those who are living in this country, are not engaged in criminal activity, are here simply to work.”
“It’s important for them to pay back-taxes,” the president said. “It’s important for them to learn English. It’s important for them to potentially pay a fine. But to give them the avenue whereby they can resolve their legal status here in this country, I think is very important.”
One of the biggest failures of Mr. Obama’s first term was his effort to impose a carbon tax on greenhouse-gas-producing companies in an effort to reduce emissions.
The president Wednesday sounded wary of trying another sweeping approach to the problem, one that might interfere with job creation. But he did say he wants to convene a group of scientists, engineers and others in the coming months to discuss other possible solutions to global warming.
“I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions,” he said. “And as a consequence, I think we’ve got an obligation to future generations to do something about it.”