WASHINGTON – Face to face with time running short, President Barack 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.”
There was no sign of movement, as evidence mounted that the White House was moving away from politically difficult cuts like increasing the Medicare eligibility age.
Some Republicans, especially in the Senate, advocated yielding to Obama on tax rates on the wealthy but continuing the battle on other fronts.
An increasing number of Senate Republicans have been pressing to yield on the question of allowing top tax rates to increase on income over $250,000 for couples, while extending Bush-era tax cuts for everyone else. That reflects 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,” Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said. “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.”
No details were released about the Obama-Boehner meeting, 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.
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.
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.”
Boehner remains caught between a tea party faction and more pragmatic Republicans advising a tactical retreat.
Thursday night’s meeting was the two men’s 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 in January.
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.
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.
Increasing the eligibility age, currently 65, is a key demand by Republicans seeking cost curbs in popular benefit programs in exchange for higher tax revenues.