Given the crunch of time and the complexity of issues such as tax reform and wringing savings from programs like Medicare, negotiators are working on a two-track process: an initial "down payment" of deficit cuts next month, coupled with work next year on overhauling the tax code and curbing entitlement programs.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a leading Senate liberal and a member of Obama's special 2010 deficit panel â¿¿ which drafted a bold deficit reduction plan blending painful entitlement cuts with $2 trillion in higher tax revenues â¿¿ weighed in with a demand that any short-term down payment avoid politically sensitive safety net programs.

"Progressives should be willing to talk about ways to ensure the long-term viability of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but those conversations should not be part of a plan to avert the fiscal cliff," Durbin said in a speech at the liberal Center for American Progress think tank in Washington.

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