"They say that their biggest priority is making sure that we deal with the deficit in a serious way, but the way they're behaving is that their only priority is making sure that tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are protected," Obama said. "That seems to be their only overriding, unifying theme."
With a little more than one day remaining before the nation faces automatic spending cuts and tax hikes that could impact an already-wobbling American economy, the president implied that there has been little progress in recent days to justify hopes of a last-minute deal to prevent going over the fiscal cliff at year's end.
"I was modestly optimistic yesterday, but we don't yet see an agreement," he said in the interview, taped on Saturday at the White House. "And now the pressure's on Congress to produce."
The president appeared open to eliminating at least some of the scheduled automatic spending cuts if Republicans agree to tax increases for the wealthy. Those cuts are slated to impact defense spending and non-entitlement discretionary spending beginning on Jan. 1.
"If we have raised some revenue by the wealthy paying a little bit more, that would be sufficient to turn off what's called the sequester, these automatic spending cuts, and that also would have a better outcome for our economy long-term," he said.
The president challenged Republicans to vote on legislation that he said should be introduced by the Democrat-controlled Senate to prevent taxes on the "middle class" from being increased.
But he did not specify what income level he would be willing to accept as a dividing line between those who retain Bush-era tax rates and those whose rates would increase. The president has consistently supported increasing taxes on families making over $250,000 a year, but that figure has been a major bargaining chip in negotiations.
Wherever the line on tax increases ends up, Obama urged a vote in both houses on a final Senate bill if a broader agreement cannot be reached.
"Everybody should have a right to vote on that," he said. "If Republicans don't like it, they can vote no. But I actually think that there's a majority support for making sure that middle class families are held harmless."
"So far, at least, Congress has not been able to get this stuff done," he added. "Not because Democrats in Congress don't want to go ahead and cooperate, but because I think it's been very hard for Speaker Boehner and Republican Leader McConnell to accept the fact that taxes on the wealthiest Americans should go up a little bit, as part of an overall deficit reduction package."
Dismissing the notion that the Democratic Party is as compromise-averse as the GOP, the president said Democrats — "warts and all" — have more consistently agreed to components of bipartisan deals.
"What I'm arguing for are maintaining tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans. I don't think anybody would consider that some liberal left-wing agenda. That used to be considered a pretty mainstream Republican agenda," he said. "And it's something that we can accomplish today if we simply allow for a vote in the Senate and in the House to get it done. The fact that it's not happening is an indication of how far certain factions inside the Republican Party have gone where they can't even accept what used to be considered centrist, mainstream positions on these issues."
The president offered no new suggestions of compromise measures that may be more palatable to Republicans, although he acknowledged that some Democrats oppose entitlement adjustments and some of the spending cuts that he's put forward during negotiations.
"The offers that I've made to [Republicans] have been so fair that a lot of Democrats get mad at me," he said, noting that his acceptance of Chained CPI, a measure that would change the way Social Security payments are determined, has caused particular rancor within his own party.
"Highly unpopular among Democrats," he said of the proposed change. "Not something supported by AARP. But in pursuit of strengthening Social Security for the long-term I'm willing to make those decisions."
If an impasse remains in place, Obama warned, Republicans' rejection of his version of deficit reduction plans would be enough to send financial markets skidding.
"What's been holding us back is the dysfunction here in Washington," he said. "And if people start seeing that on January 1st this problem still hasn't been solved, that we haven't seen the kind of deficit reduction that we could have had had the Republicans been willing to take the deal that I gave them, if they say that people's taxes have gone up, which means consumer spending is going to be depressed, then obviously that's going to have an adverse reaction in the markets."
UPDATE: House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, issued a statement responding to the president's interview on NBC.
"Americans elected President Obama to lead, not cast blame. The president's comments today are ironic, as a recurring theme of our negotiations was his unwillingness to agree to anything that would require him to stand up to his own party," Boehner said."The House has passed legislation to avert the entire fiscal cliff, and the president has never called for the Senate to act on those bills in any way. He instead has simply allowed the Democratic-controlled Senate to sit on them and lead our economy to the edge of the fiscal cliff. I am pleased Senators from both parties are currently working to find a bipartisan solution that can finally pass that chamber."