President Barack Obama said Wednesday that ending the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy would resolve half of the "fiscal cliff" problem and that other issues such as tax and entitlement reforms could be resolved later.
He insisted the economy cannot afford a tax increase on all Americans, and he called on congressional Republicans to support an extension of existing tax rates for households earning $250,000 or less.
"If we right away say 98 percent of Americans are not going to see their taxes go up - 97 percent of small businesses are not going to see their taxes go up," he said. "If we get that in place, we're actually removing half of the fiscal cliff."
(Read More: Obama 'Open to New Ideas,' but Rich Must Pay More.)
In his first news conference in months, Obama said the top priority in solving the country's fiscal crisis "must be jobs and growth."
He said he was confident that Republicans can join Democrats in avoiding the fiscal cliff.
"There's only one way to solve these problems and that is to do it together," Obama said. "I'm confident that we can do it."
In saying that the economy can't afford plunging into tax increases at the start of the year, the president distanced himself from some in his party who would prefer the tax increases and spending to occur to gain leverage.
"What we can then do is shape a process where we look at tax reform, which I'm very eager to do," he said. "I think we have to take a serious look at how we reform our entitlements because health-care costs continue to be the biggest driver of our deficits."
Obama is lobbying business and labor groups to support $1.6 trillion in new revenue to avoid the fiscal cliff, telling the two sides he remains committed to requiring the wealthy to pay more in taxes.
Obama and Democrats in Congress want the fiscal negotiations to concentrate heavily on revenue increases and much less on further spending cuts, a Senate Democratic aide said earlier.
(Read More: Is $250,000 a Year Rich? Let's Break It Down)
The aide, who asked not to be identified, added that given Democratic wins in last week's elections and the nearly $1 trillion in spending cuts already enacted into law, revenue increases must take center stage now.
The goal, the aide said, is for $3 trillion in new deficit-reductions over 10 years on top of the nearly $1 trillion already enacted.
Obama was meeting Wednesday with about a dozen business executives as the White House and Congress face a series of expiring tax cuts and across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to take effect because lawmakers failed to reach a deal to reduce the federal debt. Business groups want an agreement before the end of the year, warning that the uncertainty could roil the financial markets and harm the economic recovery.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president would bring to the table a proposal for $1.6 trillion in new taxes on business and the wealthy when he begins discussions with congressional Republicans, a figure that Obama outlined in his most recent budget plan. The targeted revenue is twice the amount Obama discussed with Republican leaders during debt talks during the summer of 2011.
Carney said the figure, combined with $1.1 trillion in spending cuts already signed into law, would reduce deficits by $4 trillion.(More From CNBC: Democrats Like a Romney Idea on Income Tax)
The White House meeting with CEOs follows a gathering Tuesday of labor leaders and liberal groups in which participants said Obama remained clear that he would push for his campaign pledge of making the wealthiest Americans pay more in taxes.
"We're prepared to stand up to make sure there is shared sacrifice here, so the rich actually start paying their fair share and the middle class don't get soaked for that," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
Failure to act would lead to spending cuts and higher taxes on all Americans, with middle-income families paying an average of about $2,000 more next year, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, part of the Democratic leadership team, said Wednesday that many "many Republicans believe now is the time to sit down and talk more revenue." Durbin said the number of GOP lawmakers in the Senate willing to work toward accommodation now totals 20.
But Durbin also said "there is a great distance" between Republicans in the House and Senate, "and basically it comes down to the question of whether Speaker (John) Boehner is willing to look for a bipartisan solution."
Durbin told MSNBC he thinks lawmakers should "use this fiscal cliff" to resolve a problem that has plagued Congress for four years.
The president pledged to raise taxes on the rich during his first term but backed off his stance in late 2010 after Republicans seized control of the House in the midterm election. During his meeting with labor leaders, Obama said he was not going to bend on letting tax cuts expire for top wage earners, according to a participant in the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private session. The president said the tax issue was clear during the election and said he had extended those enacted during the George W. Bush administration once and would not do so again, the participant said.
(Read More: Labor Backs Obama on 'Cliff' as Congress Returns.)
The CEOs have urged Congress to extend the Bush-era tax cuts until a tax overhaul can be reached and prevent the spending cuts from taking place. The executives say the uncertainty over the fiscal cliff is hurting the nation's business climate and preventing hiring.
Obama will meet with several CEOs, including the heads of Aetna, Honeywell, Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble and Ford.
The participants include members of the Campaign to Fix the Debt, a group founded by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles that has pushed for a long-term plan to fix the nation's debt and deficits.
Simpson, a former Wyoming senator, and Bowles, a former White House chief of staff, served as co-chairs of Obama's bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which proposed $3 in spending cuts for every $1 in additional revenues.
Among the CEOs attending the meeting are General Electric (GE)CEO Jeff Immelt, who chairs Obama's jobs council, and American Express (AXP) CEO Kenneth Chenault and Xerox (XRX) CEO Ursula Burns, who are members of the council.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this story.
Disclosure: GE is the minority owner of NBC Universal.More From CNBC
Geithner Warns Against Delaying Solution to US Fiscal Crisis
'Cliff' Plunge: All but Impossible to Avoid the Pain
In Debt Talks, Obama Is Ready to Go Beyond Beltway