WASHINGTON (AP) — For the first time since the Nov. 6 election, partisan bickering trumped bargaining Thursday as Democrats and Republicans vied for the political high ground in talks to avoid year-end tax increases and spending cuts that threaten harm to middle class pocketbooks.
"No substantive progress has been made between the White House and the House" over the past two weeks toward averting the "fiscal cliff," House Speaker John Boehner declared after a private meeting with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner in the Capitol. "Unfortunately, many Democrats continue to rule out sensible spending cuts that must be part of any significant agreement that will reduce our deficit."
Democrats said any holdup was the fault of Republicans, who are balking at President Barack Obama's plan to raise tax rates on incomes higher than $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples.
Republican aides later said Geithner had proposed passage by year's end of tax increases totaling $1.6 trillion over a decade, including the rate hikes sought by Obama.
They said the White House is also seeking year-end approval for an unspecified amount of new spending to renew expiring jobless benefits, help homeowners hit by the real estate collapse and prevent a looming Jan. 1 cut in fees for doctors who treat Medicare patients.
The GOP said the White House was offering unspecified spending cuts this year. Those would be followed next year by legislation producing savings from Medicare and other benefit programs of up to $400 billion over a decade, a companion to an overhaul of the tax code.
At his news conference, Boehner, R-Ohio, blamed the White House and members of Obama's party for refusing to propose detailed savings from the government's huge benefit programs.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rebutted moments later. "We're still waiting for a serious offer from Republicans," the Nevada Democrat said at a news conference. He noted that GOP leaders have refused the president's call to extend expiring tax cuts for the middle class while letting them lapse at upper incomes.
At the White House, presidential press secretary Jay Carney said flatly, "There can be no deal without rates on top earners going up."
Taking a confrontational, at times sarcastic tone, he said, "This should not be news to anyone on Capitol Hill. It is certainly not news to anyone in America who was not in a coma during the campaign season."
The White House also circulated a memo that said closing loopholes and limiting tax deductions — a preferred Republican alternative to Obama's call to raise high-end tax rates — would be likely to depress charitable donations and wind up leading to a middle class tax increase in the near future.
With barely a month remaining until year's end, the hardening of positions seemed more likely to mark a transition into hard bargaining rather than signal an end to efforts to achieve a compromise on the first postelection challenge of divided government.