Timothy Geithner, John Boehner edge toward the 'fiscal cliff'

With less than a month before the 'fiscal cliff' imposes automatic tax increases and spending cuts, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and House Speaker John Boehner dueled rhetorically on the Sunday TV news programs.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner testifies before the Senate Banking Committee in July. On Sunday, Mr. Geithner appeared on five news programs to explain the Obama administration's plan for avoiding the 'fiscal cliff.'

The political game of chicken continued Sunday as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and House Speaker John Boehner offered no signs of give, no hints of deceleration as official Washington barreled toward the Jan. 1 “fiscal cliff,” when automatic tax hikes and spending cuts kick in absent action by Congress and the White House.

(Why does this scene from “Rebel Without a Cause” come to mind?)

Mr. Geithner was all over the Sunday morning news shows, appearing on five programs.

The essence of his message: Our proposal – including higher tax rates for the wealthiest Americans – is serious, and we’re sticking to it.

“We think we have a very good plan, a very good mix of tax reforms that raise a modest amount of revenue on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, combined with very comprehensive, very well designed, very detailed savings that get us back to the point where our debt is stable and sustainable,” Geithner said on ABC’s “This Week.”

“Those rates are going to have to go up,” he said. “That’s an essential part of a deal.”

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Over on Fox News – the Republican-friendly venue where Mr. Boehner made his only Sunday morning appearance – the House speaker dismissed as “silliness” and “nonsense” current White House proposals.

“I was just flabbergasted,” Mr. Boehner said, referring to the plan Geithner outlined to lawmakers this past week. “I looked at him and I said, you can't be serious.”

The administration’s plan calls for nearly $1.6 trillion in new tax revenue over the next 10 years, while making $600 billion in spending cuts, including $350 billion from Medicare and other health programs.

It also includes $200 billion in new spending on jobless benefits, public works, and aid for struggling homeowners, according to an Associated Press analysis, and it would make it virtually impossible for Congress to block the president’s ability to raise the debt ceiling.

The Republican position is that some tax revenue increases may be acceptable, but that has to be limited to closing loopholes and limiting deductions, not raising tax rates – even for millionaires and billionaires.

But pressed to specify how that would happen, Boehner and others are vague.

"Listen, there are a lot of options in terms of how to get there," he said Sunday. "I'm not going to debate this or negotiate this with you…. We’ve laid it all out for him, a dozen different ways you can raise the revenue from the richest Americans, as the president would describe them, without raising tax rates.”

Republicans insist that any increases in revenues must be tied to measures to curb the growth of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Not now, says Geithner.

“We’re prepared to, in a separate process, look at how to strengthen Social Security,” Geithner said on ABC. “But not as part of a process to reduce the other deficits the country faces.”

What are the prospects for avoiding the fiscal cliff?

“We've got several weeks between Election Day and the end of the year, and three of those weeks have been wasted with this nonsense,” Boehner told Fox News's Chris Wallace. “Right now, I would say we're nowhere, period. We're nowhere.”

Geithner is more sanguine about reaching an accord.

“This is something we can do…. And I think we’re going to get there, because there’s too much at stake not to get there, not just for the American economy, but for the world economy.”

Still, he acknowledges, “There's going to be a lot of political theater between now and when we get there." That’s the essence of what he and Boehner were engaged in Sunday.

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