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Fiscal cliff debate: 'Lines of communication are open'

Spokespeople for both sides of the fiscal cliff debate indicated that they may be communicating. In the meantime, economists warned that failure to strike a deal could strike a blow to the economy, perhaps plunging the country back into recession. 

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"The message that I think we all want to send to members of Congress is: this is a solvable problem," Obama said while visiting the home of a couple in Falls Church, Virginia. "We are in the midst of the Christmas season and I think the American people are counting on this getting solved."

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Neither side in the showdown would characterize Wednesday's conversation between Boehner and Obama or suggest it opened up new area of compromise.

Obama and Democrats in Congress want the tax cuts set to expire at the end of the year to be extended for taxpayers with incomes below $250,000 a year but not for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.

In exchange, the president has said he is willing to consider significant spending cuts wanted by Republicans to "entitlement" programs such as Medicare, the government health insurance plan for seniors.

Republicans have held out for an extension of all the tax cuts, but they have become increasingly divided about whether they can prevail in the face of Obama's firm stance and Republican control of only the House but not the U.S. Senate.

Tangling over debt limit 

The debt ceiling issue - the same one that provoked a showdown in 2011 that led to a downgrading of the U.S. credit rating - has become a centerpiece of the fiscal cliff debate, thanks in part to Obama's insistence that Congress give him enhanced power to increase the debt limit, which needs to be raised again in the next few months.

"It ought to be done without delay and without drama," Carney, the White House spokesman, said of raising the debt ceiling.

That issue produced a largely partisan procedural scuffle on Thursday in the Senate when Republicans tried to provoke a vote on giving Obama the power to raise the debt ceiling on his own.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who had argued that not even Democrats would support giving Obama greater flexibility, tried to prove it by pushing for a vote.

When Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid went ahead and scheduled it, confident he had enough support to win on a straight majority vote, the Republicans backed down, with McConnell demanding that 60 votes be required for passage, more than the Democrats can muster.

No new vote was scheduled. While the measure could come up again, it was dead for the moment.

"Senator McConnell took obstruction to new heights by filibustering his own bill," Reid said in a statement.

Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York told reporters that Republicans were losing the argument on raising top tax rates and "are trying to pivot away to other parts of the fiscal cliff in a desperate attempt to assert leverage and change the subject."

The exchange may be a taste of things to come as Congress moves toward the fiscal cliff deadline.

Economists have warned a plunge over the cliff could drive the economy back into a recession. Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, told the congressional Joint Economic Committee that failure to strike a deal could have serious economic consequences relatively quickly.

"By mid-February you would be doing a lot of damage," Zandi said.

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