WASHINGTON – Face to face with time running short, President Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner negotiated at the White House on Thursday night in what aides called frank talks aimed at breaking a stubborn deadlock and steering the nation away from an economy-threatening fiscal cliff.
Boehner returned to the Capitol an hour later, briskly walking past reporters without comment. There was no indication whether any progress had been made, though the use of the word frank by both sides to describe the talks suggested the president and the speaker stuck hard to their opposing positions.
Before the meeting, Boehner accused Obama of dragging out negotiations. Obama is insisting on higher tax rates for household incomes above $250,000 to cut federal deficits; Boehner says he opposes higher rates, though he has said he would be willing to raise tax revenue instead by closing loopholes and deductions.
The meeting came shortly after Obama suggested that the sluggish pace of deficit-cutting talks between the administration and congressional Republicans was a result of a contentious caucus of GOP lawmakers who were making it difficult for Boehner to negotiate.
Obama, in an interview with WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, said that the notion of not raising taxes has become sort of a religion for a lot of members of the Republican Party. I think Speaker Boehner has a contentious caucus, as his caucus is tough on him sometimes, so he doesnt want to look like hes giving in to me somehow because that might hurt him in his own caucus.
Boehner saw it differently. He said earlier in the day: Unfortunately, the White House is so unserious about cutting spending that it appears willing to slow-walk any agreement and walk our economy right up to the fiscal cliff.
Thursday nights meeting was the two mens second face-to-face encounter in five days as they seek to find an agreement that avoids major tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to kick in on Jan. 1.
While the impasse over the presidents demand for higher tax rates continues to be a main obstacle in negotiations, Boehner complains that the president refuses to offer spending cuts to popular benefit programs like Medicare whose costs are rapidly rising.
The White House has pointed out that it has offered about $600 billion in specific savings over the next decade, including about $350 billion in spending reductions in health care programs such as Medicare.
Theres increasing resignation within the GOP that Obama is going to prevail on the rate issue since the alternative is to allow taxes on all workers to go way up when Bush-era tax cuts expire on Dec. 31.
I think its time to end the debate on rates, said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. Its exactly what both parties are for. Were for extending the middle-class rates. We can debate the upper-end rates and what they are when we get into tax reform.
Meanwhile, one of Obamas top Senate allies said Thursday that an increase in the Medicare eligibility age is no longer one of the items being considered by the White House in negotiations.
Sen. Dick Durbin told reporters that he did not get the information directly from the president or the White House. But as the Senates No. 2 Democrat, Durbin is regularly apprised of the status of negotiations by key players such as Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Senior White House aide Gene Sperling briefed Senate Democrats on the talks Thursday and declined to tell them whether the administration was taking the issue off the table, said a senator who was present. That senator spoke only on condition of anonymity since he was not authorized to describe a meeting that was confidential.
Increasing the eligibility age is a key demand by Republicans seeking cost curbs in popular benefit programs in exchange for higher tax revenues.
Durbins comments on the Medicare eligibility age were surprising, since negotiators including Reid have been careful to not preclude the possibility of agreeing to such an increase – perhaps as a late-stage concession in a potential deal between Obama and Boehner.