WASHINGTON — Senate leaders groped for a last-minute compromise Saturday to avoid middle-class tax increases and possibly prevent deep spending cuts at the dawn of the new year as President Barack Obama warned that failure could mean a "self-inflicted wound to the economy."

Obama chastised lawmakers in his weekly radio and Internet address for waiting until the last minute to try and avoid a "fiscal cliff," yet said there was still time for an agreement. "We cannot let Washington politics get in the way of America's progress," he said as the hurry-up negotiations unfolded.

For all the recent expressions of urgency, bargaining took place by phone, email and paper in a Capitol nearly empty except for tourists. Alone among top lawmakers, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell spent the day in his office.

In the Republicans' weekly address, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri cited a readiness to compromise. "Divided government is a good time to solve hard problems – and in the next few days, leaders in Washington have an important responsibility to work together and do just that," he said.

Even so, there was no guarantee of success, and a dispute over the federal tax on large estates emerged as yet another key sticking point alongside personal income tax rates.

In a blunt challenge to Republicans, Obama said that barring a bipartisan agreement, he expected both houses to vote on his own proposal to block tax increases on all but the wealthy and simultaneously preserve expiring unemployment benefits.

Political calculations mattered as much as deep-seated differences over the issues, as divided government struggled with its first big challenge since the November elections.

Speaker John Boehner remained at arms-length, juggling a desire to avoid the fiscal cliff with his goal of winning another term as speaker when a new Congress convenes next Thursday. Any compromise legislation is certain to include higher tax rates on the wealthy, and the House GOP rank and file rejected the idea when he presented it to them as part of a final attempt to strike a more sweeping agreement with Obama.

Lawmakers have until the new Congress convenes to pass any compromise, and even the calendar mattered. Democrats said they had been told House Republicans might reject a deal until after Jan. 1, to avoid a vote to raise taxes before they had technically gone up and then vote to cut taxes after they had risen.

Nor was any taxpayer likely to feel any adverse impact if legislation is signed and passed into law in the first two or three days of 2013 instead of the final hours of 2012.

Gone was the talk of a grand bargain of spending cuts and additional tax revenue in which the two parties would agree to slash deficits by trillions of dollars over a decade.

Now negotiators had a more cramped goal of preventing additional damage to the economy in the form of higher taxes across the board – with some families facing increases measured in the thousands of dollars – as well as cuts aimed at the Pentagon and hundreds of domestic programs.

Republicans said they were willing to bow to Obama's call for higher taxes on the wealthy as part of a deal to prevent them from rising on those less well-off.

Democrats said Obama was sticking to his campaign call for tax increases above $250,000 in annual income, even though he said in recent negotiations he said he could accept $400,000. There was no evidence of agreement even at the higher level.

There were indications from Republicans that estate taxes might hold more significance for them than the possibility of higher rates on income.

One senior Republican, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, said late Friday he was "totally dead set" against Obama's estate tax proposal, and as if to reinforce the point, Blunt mentioned the issue before any other in his broadcast remarks. "Small businesses and farm families don't know how to deal with the unfair death tax_a tax that the president and congressional leaders have threatened to expand to include even more family farms and even more small businesses," he said.

Several officials said Republicans want to leave the tax at 35 percent after exempting the first $5 million in estate value. Officials said the White House wants a 45 percent tax after a $3.5 million exemption. Without any action by Congress, it would climb to a 55 percent tax after a $1 million exemption on Jan. 1.

Democrats stressed their unwillingness to make concessions on both income taxes and the estate tax, and said they hoped Republicans would choose which mattered more to them.

Officials said any compromise was likely to ease the impact of the alternative minimum tax, originally designed to make sure that millionaires did not escape taxation. If left unchanged, it could hit an estimated 28 million households for the first time in 2013, with an average increase of more than $3,000.

Taxes on dividends and capital gains are also involved in the talks, as well as a series of breaks for businesses and others due to expire at the first of the year.

Obama and congressional Democrats are insisting on an extension of long-term unemployment benefits that are expiring for about 2 million jobless individuals.

Leaders in both parties also hope to prevent a 27 percent fee cut from taking effect on Jan. 1 for doctors who treat Medicare patients.

There was also discussion of a short-term extension of expiring farm programs, in part to prevent a spike in milk prices at the first of the year. It wasn't clear if that was a parallel effort to the cliff talks or had become wrapped into them.

Across-the-board spending cuts that comprise part of the cliff were a different matter.

Republicans say Boehner will insist that they will begin to take effect unless negotiators agreed to offset them with specified savings elsewhere.

That would set the stage for the next round of brinkmanship – a struggle over Republican calls for savings from Medicare, Medicaid and other federal benefit programs.

The Treasury's ability to borrow is expected to expire in late winter or early spring, and without an increase in the $16.4 trillion limit, the government would face its first-ever default. Republicans have said they will use administration requests for an extension as leverage to win cuts in spending.

Ironically, it was just such a maneuver more than a year ago that set the stage for the current crisis talks over the fiscal cliff.

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  • Prison Reform

    The U.S. incarcerates its citizens at a rate roughly <a href="http://www.parade.com/news/2009/03/why-we-must-fix-our-prisons.html" target="_hplink">five times higher than the global average</a>. We have about 5 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of its prisoners, according to The Economist,. This status quo costs our local, state and federal governments a combined $68 billion a year -- all of which becomes a federal problem during recessions, when states look to Washington for fiscal relief. Over the standard 10-year budget window used in Congress, that's a $680 billion hit to the deficit. Solving longstanding prison problems -- releasing elderly convicts unlikely to commit crimes, offering treatment or counseling as an alternative to prison for non-violent offenders, slightly shortening the sentences of well-behaved inmates, and substituting probation for more jail-time -- would do wonders for government spending.

  • End Of The Drug War

    The federal government spends more than <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18563_162-20072096.html" target="_hplink">$15 billion a year</a> investigating and prosecuting the War on Drugs. That's $150 billion in Washington budget-speak, and it doesn't include the far higher costs of incarcerating millions of people for doing drugs. This money isn't getting the government the results it wants. As drug war budgets balloon, drug use escalates. Ending the Drug War offers the government two separate budget boons. In addition to saving all the money spending investigating, prosecuting and incarcerating drug offenders, Uncle Sam could actually regulate and tax drugs like marijuana, generating new revenue. Studies by pot legalization advocates indicate that fully legalizing weed in California would yield <a href="http://canorml.org/background/CA_legalization2.html" target="_hplink">up to $18 billion annually</a> for that state's government alone. For the feds, the benefits are even sweeter.

  • Let Medicare Negotiate With Big Pharma

    The U.S. has <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/06/01/us-healthcare-costs-sb-idUSTRE5504Z320090601" target="_hplink">higher health care costs than any other country</a>. We spend over 15 percent of our total economic output each year on health care -- roughly 50 percent more than Canada, and double what the U.K. spends. Why? The American private health care system is inefficient, and the intellectual property rules involving medication in the U.S. can make prescription drugs much more expensive than in other countries. Medicare currently spends about $50 billion a year on prescription drugs. According to economist Dean Baker, <a href="http://www.cepr.net/documents/publications/intellectual_property_2004_09.pdf" target="_hplink">Americans spend roughly 10 times more than they need to</a> on prescription drugs as a result of our unique intellectual property standards. These savings for the government, of course, would come from the pockets of major pharmaceutical companies, currently among the most profitable corporations the world has ever known. They also exercise tremendous clout inside the Beltway. President Barack Obama even <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/02/barack-obama-politics_n_1847947.html" target="_hplink">guaranteed drug companies more restrictive -- and lucrative -- intellectual property standards</a> in order to garner their support for the Affordable Care Act.

  • Offshore Tax Havens

    The U.S. Treasury Department estimates that it loses about <a href="http://www.ctj.org/pdf/stopact.pdf" target="_hplink">$100 billion a year</a> in revenue due to offshore tax haven abuses. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has been pushing legislation for years to rein in this absurd tax maneuvering, but corporate lobbying on Capitol Hill has prevented the bill from becoming law.

  • Deprivatize Government Contract Work

    In recent years, the federal government has privatized an enormous portion of public projects to government contractors. Over the past decade, the federal government's staffing has held steady, while the number of federal contractors has <a href="http://pogoarchives.org/m/co/igf/bad-business-report-only-2011.pdf" target="_hplink">increased by millions</a>. This outsourcing has resulted in much higher costs for the government than would be incurred by simply doing the work in-house. On average, contractors are paid <a href="http://pogoarchives.org/m/co/igf/bad-business-report-only-2011.pdf" target="_hplink">nearly double</a> what a comparable federal employee would receive for the same job, according to the Project On Government Oversight.

  • Print More Money

    There's an old saying in economics: You have to print money to make money. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/09/underwear-sales-growth-economy_n_1952214.html" target="_hplink">Okay, there's no such saying</a>. Nevertheless, the great boogeyman of many conservative economic doctrines -- inflation -- isn't such a bad idea during periods where much of the citizenry is drowning in debt. Inflation is by no means a perfect remedy: it's a stealth cut to workers' wages. But it also has many benefits that are often unacknowledged by the Washington intelligentsia. Inflation makes housing debt, student loan debt and any other private-sector debt more manageable. Today, when <a href="http://www.corelogic.com/about-us/researchtrends/asset_upload_file448_16434.pdf" target="_hplink">10.8 million</a> homes are underwater -- meaning borrowers owe banks than their houses are worth, moderate inflation could ease that debt burden. By effectively reducing monthly bills, moderate inflation could actually put more money in the pockets of these homeowners to spend elsewhere, thus stimulating the economy. Moderate inflation -- 5 percent or so -- could also help alleviate the <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505145_162-57555780/student-loan-debt-nears-$1-trillion-is-it-the-new-subprime/" target="_hplink">$1 trillion</a> in student debt currently plaguing America's graduates. Make no mistake -- hyperinflation of 20 percent, 30 percent or more -- is bad. But the U.S. has ways to crush inflation when it gets out of hand, as proven by the Federal Reserve under then-Chairman Paul Volcker in the early-1980s.

  • Print Less Money

    The government prints a <em>lot</em> of $1 bills. But it turns out that minting $1 coins is much, much cheaper. Over the course of 30 years, the government could save $4.4 billion by switching from dollar bills to dollar coins. Here's looking at you, <a href="http://www.usmint.gov/mint_programs/nativeamerican/" target="_hplink">Sacagawea</a>.

  • Immigration: Less Detention, More Ankle Bracelets

    The government spends <a href="http://newamericamedia.org/2012/04/ice-slow-to-embrace-alternatives-to-immigrant-detention.php" target="_hplink"> $122 per person, per day</a> detaining immigrants who are considered safe and unlikely to commit crimes. The government has plenty of other options available to monitor such people, at a cost of as little as $15 per person. For the first 205 years of America's existence, there was no federal system for detaining immigrants. The process began in 1981.

  • Financial Speculation Tax

    Wall Street loves to gamble. In good times, financial speculation is the source of tremendous profits in America's banking system, but when the bets go bad, the government picks up the tab, as evidenced by the epic bank bailouts of 2008 and 2009. Unfortunately, this speculation is difficult to define in legalistic terminology and even more difficult to police. One solution? By taxing every financial trade at the ultra-low rate of 0.25 percent, the U.S. government can impose a modest incentive against gambling for the sheer sake of gambling. If there's an immediate cost to placing a bet, a lot of traders will choose not to bet. What's more, this tax could raise about <a href="http://www.ips-dc.org/media/why_a_financial_transaction_tax" target="_hplink">$150 billion a year</a> for the federal government.

  • Carbon Tax

    Taxing greenhouse gases would generate $80 billion a year right now, and up to $310 billion a year by 2050, <a href="http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2012/07/carbon-tax-mckibbin-morris-wilcoxen" target="_hplink">according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution</a>. It would also help avert catastrophic ecological and economic damage from climate change.