By MICHELLE R. SMITHPROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) â¿¿ Members of Rhode Island's congressional delegation said Monday they were optimistic a deal can be struck to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, the automatic tax hikes and spending cuts set to start in the new year. The four members of the state's delegation, all Democrats, told The Associated Press there are signs of progress in Washington after President Barack Obama met with Republican House Speaker John Boehner on Sunday. Still, it could be January before they reach an agreement, although such a deal could be made retroactive, several members said. "There are some encouraging signs, but nothing definite. It has to be a balanced approach. If the speaker continues to resist any type of revenue increases on upper income Americans, then, just sheer arithmetic, we cannot fill this big deficit," Sen. Jack Reed said. "He's got to step up to the plate." Reed said he was most concerned about people who are unemployed. Emergency jobless benefits for about 2.1 million people out of work more than six months will cease Dec. 29, and 1 million more will lose them over the next three months if Congress doesn't extend the assistance again. Reed has been pushing to extend those benefits. He said that in most cases, groups other than the unemployed will be able to manage in the short term, including the defense industry, which faces deep and automatic cuts if no deal is reached. He also said it was important that any changes to the tax code not to be done at the last minute but done carefully, thoroughly and deliberately. "It can't be done over a weekend under huge pressure. Because it will be done incorrectly," Reed said. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said he believes leaders will reach an agreement, although he said he is not confident it will happen before Jan. 1. Any changes can be made retroactive, he said, adding that he believes the term "fiscal cliff" is somewhat misleading.
"The term creates the image that on Jan. 1, we step off this thing like Wile E. Coyote going off one of those cartoon cliffs and fall hundreds of miles to a poof on the desert floor," he said. "The fiscal cliff is not as dire or as immediate as a lot of the press have led people to believe."Rep. David Cicilline echoed that sentiment. He said if Congress can't agree on a comprehensive plan, they should at least pass a middle-class tax cut, then work out the rest of the deal later. "I think it's important for people to understand that if it happens that a deal is not concluded until the first week of January, second week of January, it doesn't put us into recession instantly," he said, adding, "This is a fragile recovery. The last thing we need ... is a tax increase." Rep. Jim Langevin said it was encouraging that Boehner and Obama met on Sunday and said it appeared negotiations were moving along quickly. He said his biggest concern was for the thousands of large and small employers who depend on the defense industry in Rhode Island. "I believe we are going to get something substantive on this," Langevin said. "I believe that at the very least we will have a blueprint of a deal to avoid the fiscal cliff before the end of the year. In terms of dotting the i's and crossing the t's it may not happen until January or February, but I think it'll be clear that the details of this plan have been worked out."