President Obama to discuss 'fiscal cliff' with labor leaders

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama opens a new campaign Tuesday to build pressure on Congress to cut the federal debt the way he sees fit, meeting with labor leaders who want lawmakers to raise taxes on the wealthy and guard against slashing health benefits for seniors.

Obama was kicking off a series of meetings this week with labor officials, business executives and congressional leaders aimed at pushing Congress to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff" and find consensus on a plan to prevent more financial hardships next year. The week will include a tone-setting news conference Wednesday that will give the president the chance to frame his outlook on the year-ending lame duck session.

The president views his re-election as an affirmation of his belief that raising taxes on families earning more than $250,000 a year is what voters want. Republican House Speaker John Boehner has expressed a willingness to raise revenues but remains opposed to boosting tax rates, pointing instead to closing tax loopholes, lowering rates and fixing entitlement programs.

Both sides have voiced the potential for cooperation, but face a post-election confrontation over a series of expiring tax cuts approved during the George W. Bush presidency and tough, across-the-board spending cuts set to take place because lawmakers failed to reach a deal to reduce the federal debt.

Economists have warned the combination of the expiring tax cuts and reduced spending could hinder the economic recovery.

The president hopes labor and progressive groups will marshal support for what he has called a "balanced" plan to reduce the debt while protecting spending priorities. Separately, a meeting Wednesday with business executives, many of whom supported Republican rival Mitt Romney, aims to enlist their help in persuading Republicans to support higher taxes on the wealthy.

Obama's meeting with labor leaders includes AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka; Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union; Lee Saunders of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; and Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association.

Several progressive organizations are also participating, including leaders of the Center for American Progress, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and

The unions and Democratic-leaning groups remain resistant to calls to reform Medicare and Medicaid as part of a grand bargain with Republicans and have pressed Obama to stand firm on letting the Bush tax cuts expire and raising taxes on the wealthy.

"At a time when we are working to rebuild the middle class in our country, it's time we asked everyone, including the wealthiest 2 percent, to pay their fair share," said Peter Colavito, SEIU's director of government relations.

Obama meets Wednesday with a dozen CEOs from companies such as General Electric, Walmart, Ford and Chevron. Some of the participants are involved with The Campaign to Fix the Debt, which has pushed for a long-term plan to fix the nation's debt and deficits.

The gatherings set the stage for a Friday meeting with the top four leaders of Congress before Obama departs on a trip to Asia leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday.