Fiscal cliff: Obama, Boehner speak frankly (+video)
As the battle over the United States' 'fiscal cliff' continues, President Obama and Representative Boehner spoke directly at the White House on Thursday.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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Obama, in an interview during the day 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 doesn't want to look like he's giving in to me somehow because that might hurt him in his own caucus."
While the impasse over the president's 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.
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, currently 65, 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.
Particularly noteworthy were 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.
The willingness of Cornyn to voice such sentiments raised eyebrows since he's a top confidant of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who keeps a tight rein on the Senate GOP caucus. Neither McConnell nor Cornyn are prone to firing half-cocked.
Still, any GOP plan B to surrender on upper income tax rate would leave unaddressed a bunch of other issues, especially $109 billion in automatic across-the-board spending cuts to the Pentagon and domestic programs that would start to take effect in January. The alternative minimum tax needs to be addressed or else millions of middle- to upper-income taxpayers will face higher tax bills, while doctors face sharp cuts in their Medicare reimbursements.
A number of tax breaks for businesses are also set to expire, including write-offs for investments in equipment and research and development.