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Obama, Congress prepare to focus on ‘fiscal cliff’

KAILUA, Hawaii — President Barack Obama was planning to cut his Christmas vacation short and return to Washington to make a last-ditch push for a compromise on a tax and spending dispute with Congress that remains stubbornly unresolved.

A White House official said Tuesday that the president could depart as early as Wednesday.

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Meanwhile, both chambers of Congress will come back from their holiday hiatus Thursday and return to work. While there are growing signs that some members of both parties are prepared to accept a deal that raises taxes on people at the highest income levels, there is considerable distance between Republicans and Democrats and no guarantee that an agreement could pass.

The president and Congress left Washington late last week after House Republicans rejected a plan that would have left tax rates in place for all but those with incomes more than $1 million.

Obama has since called for a less ambitious approach to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff Jan. 1, when a series of automatic budget cuts and tax increases will go into effect if Congress and the White House cannot come up with an alternative course of action.

The White House has been seeking a resolution through talks with Senate Democrats, who control the chamber and have gained the tacit support of some of their Republican colleagues.

But the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has given no indication that his members would not seek to block a deal that includes tax increases.

The main obstacle remains the Republican-led House, where a bloc of conservatives has ruled out any tax increases whatsoever.

Over the past four days, Obama has had a placid and uneventful vacation of golfing, hiking and exercising on a military base here on the island of Oahu, where he was raised and usually spends the holidays.

He had a quiet Christmas Day with his family. He spent most of the morning and early afternoon at the beach house he is renting on the island, except for an hour and a half he spent at the gym.

It was likely to be Obama’s last day of solitude for a while. With a fiscal deal still out of reach, the president can ill afford the public relations problems that would arise from being on vacation while the country heads uncertainly toward a deadline that could have a serious impact on the financial markets and the economy.

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