(Updated to include comments from President Barack Obama.)
NEW YORK ( TheStreet -- Optimism returned after the market close on Friday that a meeting between President Obama and congressional Democratic and Republican leaders could lead to a renewal of negotiations to avert the "fiscal cliff," in spite of no new proposals offered by week-end.
With three days left to go until the New Year, it increasingly appears that Senate leaders may be able to broker a last minute deal, as Obama stands ready for a showdown with Republicans in Congress.
The president may either try to broker a new budget proposal between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), or force an up-or-down vote on his existing budget plan, unveiled a week ago.At 3 p.m. Eastern time, Obama met with Republicans McConnell and Boehner and with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Ca). U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was seen attending the meeting along with Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.), Obama's recently appointed secretary of state. Markets fell sharply as the meeting convened and reports from CNBC and Bloomberg indicated Obama wouldn't offer any new proposals. However, in a White House address and in statements on the Senate floor, Obama, McConnell and Reid all offered signs that a last minute deal could be reached by Sunday evening. "I just had a good and constructive discussion here at the White House... Senators Reid and McConnell are working on an agreement right now," said Obama in an address to the media that started at 5:45 p.m. ET. While President Obama expressed optimism a deal on lower income and middle class tax cuts could be reached, which would also extend unemployment insurance set to expire in the New Year. He also showed a willingness to put a previous budget proposal to the Senate for an up or down vote, which the president said could pass. On the Senate floor just after 5:15 p.m. ET, Reid indicated there was still time for a last-minute vote at 2 p.m. ET Sunday. "I think it was a very positive meeting," he said. "We are engaged in discussions," said McConnell of the prospect that the Senate finds a bipartisan proposal that could face a Sunday afternoon Senate vote, which would subsequently move to the House. "I am hopeful and optimistic," he said. Fiscal cliff talks in Washington turned optimistic just after 5 p.m. ET; however, it didn't filter to Wall Street, where trading closed at session lows on Friday, in the absence of new budget proposals offered at the White House meeting. The Dow Jones Industrial Average declined 158 points, or 1.1%, closing below 13,000. Dow futures contracts have the index down by over 200 points. The S&P 500 fell nearly 16 points, or 1.1%, and closed just above the 14,000 level. The Nasdaq dropped 25.6 points, or 0.9%, to 2,960.31. Shares of all companies in the 30-member Dow fell, with Hewlett-Packard (HPQ - Get Report) declining the most, at 2.56%. Chevron (CVX - Get Report) and Exxon Mobil (XOM - Get Report) were the only other Dow stocks to drop more about 2%. American Express (AXP - Get Report), the only rising stock in midday trading, was down slightly by Friday's close. Lawmakers weren't the only people to change their script on the looming fiscal cliff. After downgrading the U.S. government's debt rating amid the messy August 2011 debt-limit negotiations, ratings agency Standard & Poor's said on Friday it doesn't expect a fiscal-cliff stalemate to affect its rating of the government's debt. Meanwhile, the prospect of a standoff between Obama and congressional Republicans doesn't appear to raise S&P's alarm that a last-minute deal could contain short-term measures that don't resolve long-term budget issues. "Standard & Poor's Ratings Services does not expect negotiations over the fiscal cliff to have an impact on its 'AA+/A-1+' ratings on the U.S. federal government," the rating agency said in a press release late Friday. Still, an 11th-hour agreement that waters down tax hikes or budget cuts would appear to reaffirm S&P's negative outlook on the government's debt rating. "Our existing negative outlook on the U.S. rating speaks to the risk of a deliberate further loosening of fiscal policy, for example through a material weakening of the Budget Control Act of 2011 without compensating measures," S&P said Friday. Peter Tchir, head of TF Market Advisors, said he remains "stubbornly optimistic that the politicians do enough over the weekend for a bounce" in stocks. Lawmakers have three days to broker a deal with lawmakers before taxes automatically rise and spending cuts take hold, a combination that could push the economy into a recession, according to Congressional Budget Office calculations.