President Obama speaks to the media on Friday. The president said he'd invited congressional GOP leaders to the White House to discuss ways of avoiding the "fiscal cliff."(Photo: Mark Wilson Getty Images)
By NBC's Ali Weinberg
Business executives who met with Barack Obama Wednesday to discuss the fiscal cliff said the president was receptive to their suggestions but said the onus remained on Congress to avoid not going over the cliff.
Xerox CEO Ursula M. Burns said the meeting was "very constructive, very positive" but that the leaders "didn't get into too many specifics." She said they would stand by if the president required their public advocacy.
"We were very clear that if we could help him to get to a solution we are absolutely behind him because going over the cliff is not something that any of us in the room could live with," Burns said.
The meeting occurred a day after President Obama met with labor leaders, who came away saying the president assured them that he would only accept a deal that raised rates on the wealthy and kept them low for middle-class Americans. Those leaders, including the AFL-CIO's Richard Trumka, seemed more committed to staging a public relations campaign over the tax rates than the CEOs did.
On the whole, the CEOs seemed satisfied that their voices would be heard in this round of negotiations; a source familiar with the 80-minute discussion inside the Roosevelt Room said the White House expressed more of a commitment to keep business leaders involved with the fiscal talks than they did during the 2011 talks, but did not elaborate on how that communication would occur.
Honeywell CEO David Cote praised the president for being engaged, telling CNBC in an interview that talking to him was "not just a case of talking to somebody who's doing his Blackberry at the same time," but added that he is still concerned that Congress could get a deal before the end-of-year combination of spending cuts and tax increases kicks in.
"I am not convinced we won't go off the fiscal cliff. Because that requires two sides to agree, so I'm not convinced of that," Cote told NBC after his interview.
Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke issued a statement after the meeting, warning of the damage Congress would do to consumer confidence if they weren't able to reach a compromise.
"Wal-Mart moms tell us their confidence in the economy is shaped by whether they believe Washington is working for them. If the White House and Congress can reach agreement, it will show them the nation's leaders can address big issues, and it will help raise their confidence in their government and their future."
Earlier in the day, some of the CEOs previewed what they would recommend to the president when they met with him.
"We support 'loophole closers' but only in the context of broadening the income tax base while lowering rates and moving to a competitive territorial system like most of the rest of the world," Proctor and Gamble spokesman Paul Fox said in a statement Tuesday evening. P&G's CEO Robert McDonald also attended Wednesday's meeting.
The Campaign to Fix the Debt, a group founded by former Fiscal Commission chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, some of whose CEO Council members were in the meeting, also indicated what they would ask for in a statement released last week.
"Any plan to address our debt must replace the abrupt fiscal cliff with a gradual and intelligent plan to reduce spending, make structural entitlement reforms, and enact comprehensive tax reform which cuts tax preferences in order to lower rates and reduce deficits," the group said in response to Obama's inviting business leaders to the White House last Friday.