WASHINGTON — With time growing short and no "fiscal cliff" progress evident, President Barack Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner met for face-to-face negotiations late Thursday at the White House.
The meeting came shortly after Boehner publicly accused Obama of dragging out negotiations on a federal tax-and-spending agreement that would avoid an economy-threatening series of wide-ranging tax increases and spending cuts that could come in less than three weeks. Other Republicans said such a tactic seemed to be working in making it more likely a deal would include higher tax rates for the wealthy.
As the meeting started, the two sides appeared far apart on the issues, and Boehner was scheduled to return home to Ohio on Friday.
An impasse between Obama and Boehner, R-Ohio, over the president's demand for higher tax rates on household income over $250,000 continues to be a main obstacle in negotiations to avoid broad tax increases and spending cuts that will be triggered automatically on Jan. 1. Boehner says the president refuses to offer spending cuts to popular benefit programs like Medicare whose costs are rapidly rising.
"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," Boehner told reporters Thursday.
But there's 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 it's time to end the debate on rates," said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. "It's exactly what both parties are for. We're for extending the middle-class rates. We can debate the upper-end rates and what they are when we get into tax reform."
"He's got a full house and we're trying to draw an inside straight," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. When it was observed that making a straight would still be a losing hand, Isakson said: "Yeah, I know."
Boehner remains the key figure, though, caught between a tea party faction and more pragmatic Republicans advising a tactical retreat. He dodged a question Thursday on whether he would be willing to schedule a vote that would permit the top two tax brackets on family income exceeding $250,000 and individual income over $200,000 to rise back to 1990s levels.
Meanwhile, one of Obama's 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 Senate's 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.
Durbin's 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.
At a news conference, Reid again called on House Republicans to allow a vote on renewing Bush-era tax cuts for the 98 percent of taxpayers whose incomes are below $250,000. Obama vows to force rates on family income exceeding $250,000 from a top rate of 35 percent to the Clinton-era rate of 39.6 percent. He said the alternative is to allow tax cuts for everyone to expire.
"At some point, reality should set in," Reid said.
Reid cited comments by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas to Politico.com, in which Cornyn, soon to be the No. 2 Senate Republican, said, "I believe we're going to pass the $250,000 and below sooner or later, and we really don't have much leverage" because those rates are going to expire anyway on Dec. 31.
On Thursday, Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican and leading conservative figure, predicted that Obama would prevail in the fight over taxes.
"He's going to get his wish. I believe we're going to be raising taxes, and not just on the top earners," DeMint, who is leaving the Senate to become president of the Heritage Institution think tank, said in an appearance on "CBS This Morning."