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At White House, CEOs offer support for higher tax rates

By Jeff Mason and Pedro da Costa

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Chief executives from corporations such as Goldman Sachs and Deloitte LLP met with President Barack Obama on Wednesday and offered support for resolving U.S. fiscal problems with an approach that included higher tax rates for wealthy Americans.

Some fourteen business chiefs from companies such as Yahoo Inc, Comcast Corp, and Marriott International Inc met with Obama at the White House to discuss solutions to the "fiscal cliff" - a series of tax hikes and spending cuts that will go into effect next year if lawmakers and the president cannot come up with a deal to stop them.

Obama's outreach to business was meant to garner support for his proposal to extend tax cuts for middle income earners, while raising them for households making more than $250,000 a year.

Republicans oppose raising tax rates, saying that would hurt job growth at a time of still high unemployment.

Executives who attended the meeting said leaders from both sides needed to compromise, and they indicated backing for an increase in rates for high earners like themselves.

"The president and his team were resoundingly reasonable in what they had to say. They came into the meeting wanting to communicate that revenue increases are a significant part of a deal, but not the only part of a deal, and that they were also committed to an entitlement reform and spending focus," said Marriott Chief Executive Arne Sorenson.

"I think generally people had the view that, if it's balanced, if there are revenue increases that are part of it, that's fine, but don't only talk about revenue increases. Make sure we're talking about both."

Goldman Sachs Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein, speaking to CNN after the meeting, said he did not "preclude" tax rates rising for wealthy Americans to raise revenue and fight the federal budget deficit.

"I've said in the past that the numbers would drive you to more revenue," he said on CNN. "I think it's better to have as low a marginal rate as possible because the incentive is the marginal rate, but if we had to lift up the marginal rate I would do that."

Other executives slated to be at the meeting included AT&T Inc CEO Randall Stephenson, Archer Daniels Midland Co chief Patricia Woertz, Coca-Cola Co chief Muhtar Kent, Caterpillar Inc's Doug Oberhelman, and Pfizer Inc's Ian Read.

A White House spokeswoman declined to discuss the meeting in detail.

Deloitte LLP Chief Executive Joe Echevarria said the executives agreed on the need for higher tax rates for the top tier of U.S. earners.

"There needs to be some revenue element to this, and (Obama) started with rates. And he started with rates on what we would define (as) the upper two percent. ... That we have to pay our fair share. And I think everybody was in agreement with that notion," he said.

Obama has not always had friendly relations with the business community, but Echevarria said the meeting was constructive. "The president clearly wanted to embrace business. ... He solicited input from all of us, and he took it all with open arms," he said.

Obama met with small business leaders on Tuesday and plans to visit a small business in Pennsylvania on Friday to showcase his proposals.

Corporate chief executives also met with leaders on Capitol Hill.

(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Paul Eckert; editing by Todd Eastham)

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