MARGARET WARNER: Eighteen days and counting until the end of the year, when the government reaches the edge of the so-called fiscal cliff.
Congressional correspondent Kwame Holman kicks off our coverage tonight.
KWAME HOLMAN: Late in the day, House Speaker John Boehner left Capitol Hill to meet privately with President Obama at the White House, their second face-to-face meeting in a week, after a day of heated rhetoric that began on Capitol Hill, when Boehner was blunt again rejecting the president's demand for power to raise the country's debt ceiling.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: Congress is never going to give up our ability to control the purse. And the fact is, is that the debt limit ought to be used to bring fiscal sanity to Washington, D.C.
KWAME HOLMAN: As the deadline to reach a deal to avert the fiscal cliff draws ever closer, Republicans say the real issue is spending cuts.
JOHN BOEHNER: Republicans want to solve this problem by getting the spending line down. The president wants to pretend that spending isn't the problem. That's why we don't have an agreement.
KWAME HOLMAN: A claim the White House denies.
Spokesman Jay Carney:
JAY CARNEY, White House: Let's just be clear. There is one party to these negotiations who has put forward a specific proposal for revenue and a specific proposal for spending cuts. Even when the Republicans -- and I saw Speaker Boehner do this earlier today -- insist that the president hasn't put forward spending cuts, one, it begs the question, what spending cuts have the Republicans put forward?
KWAME HOLMAN: The president was asked if he was optimistic about reaching a deal.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Still a work in progress.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Republicans in Congress should yield to public opinion about tax increases.
SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.: Speaker Boehner knows or should know that the middle-class tax help that we have to pass would sail through the House of Representatives. Democrats would overwhelmingly vote for it. I would doubt there could be any Democrat that would vote against it. And, as we know from the chorus of Republicans that are added to every day, more Republicans join every day.
KWAME HOLMAN: In fact, new polls show Americans do want compromise, and it's the Democrats who hold the edge. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released yesterday shows a majority, 65 percent, say President Obama has a mandate on both increasing taxes on the wealthy and reducing federal spending.
A similar two-thirds are willing to accept tax increases or cuts in federal government programs to reach a deal. But while public support on taxes is overwhelming, opinion on proposed cuts is less so.
A new Pew Research Center poll out today shows three-quarters said deficit reduction should come from cutting major programs and increasing taxes.
Majorities disapprove of specific cuts to education, infrastructure, defense and anti-poverty programs. And just more than half oppose raising the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare.
While both sides have proposed cuts and changes to Medicare, only limited specifics have been released.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, for more on what the public thinks about how the leaders are handling the negotiations and the debate over cuts to Medicare, we turn to Ray Suarez.
He begins with the Pew Research Center poll. He talked about it a short time ago with the center's Andrew Kohut.
RAY SUAREZ: Andy Kohut, welcome.
You have been measuring public attitudes since Election Day. Is it shifting in a way that gives President Obama a stronger hand in dealing with Republican leaders as we approach the fiscal cliff?
ANDREW KOHUT, Pew Research Center: No question. He's gotten a lot of -- he has a lot of capital with the public. His approval ratings have surged to 55 percent. A point of comparison, President Bush in December 2004 was at 48 percent.
And when we ask people, is Obama trying to make a serious effort to negotiate a deal or to get a deal, 55 percent say yes. When we say the same thing about Republican leaders, just 32 percent say yes. The Democrats are better regarded in this negotiation than the Republicans by a lot.
RAY SUAREZ: Did you ask people what they would be willing to put up with in order to get some sort of solution? For instance, do they support raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, they have a very mixed view of things. They support raising taxes on those who earn more than $250,000, 69 percent, I believe, the statistic.
They believe in raising taxes on investment income. They believe in limiting the number of deductions that can be taken. Things that are in the realm of rich people or more wealthy people making sacrifices are strongly endorsed by the public or accepted by the public. I won't say strongly endorsed.
But when we get to sacrifices that involve a broader part of the American public, personally and with respect to important programs, they say no. Well, 77 percent say, no, let's not reduce funds for education; 58 percent said let's not cut funding to help lower-income people.
There is very little give on raising the retirement age for -- either for Social Security or for Medicare. The public opposes this. So it's one of these deals where the public thinks something has to be done, and they are reluctant themselves to accept sacrifices in cuts in programs.
RAY SUAREZ: So, by a very small margin, if I recall your numbers, they would support means-testing for Medicare, that is, cutting back on the benefits for wealthy people, but not raising the age at which everyone would become eligible.
ANDREW KOHUT: That's quite right.
Again, it's a funny thing here, Ray. The fairness issue, which looms so large and rose so large over the past year and over the past few years, is playing out in the way people think about how to deal with the fiscal cliff crisis.
RAY SUAREZ: Andy Kohut of the Pew Research Center, thanks a lot.
ANDREW KOHUT: You're welcome, Ray.