UPDATE 1-Biden says ready to respond to any serious 'fiscal cliff' offer

Jeff Mason
Reuters Middle East

ARLINGTON, Va., Dec 7 (Reuters) - The White House will

respond to "any serious offer" from congressional Republicans to

prevent the U.S. "fiscal cliff" and "theoretically" could

negotiate how much tax rates must rise for top earners, Vice

President Joe Biden said on Friday.

Biden, who was meeting with people at a diner who described

how an increase in middle-class tax rates would affect them,

laid out two criteria for a deal to avoid looming spending cuts

and across-the-board tax hikes: an increase in tax rates for the

wealthiest Americans and an end to political gamesmanship over

raising the debt ceiling.

"The president's ready to respond to any serious offer put

on the table," Biden told reporters when asked to respond to

Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John

Boehner's comment that President Barack Obama was pushing the

country toward the fiscal cliff.

"That is not the president's position," Biden said. "We have

laid out where we are. There has been in a sense a referendum"

on the need for higher tax rates for the wealthiest Americans

and for an end to stalemates over the debt ceiling, he said.

The White House wants tax rates for the top 2 percent of

U.S. earners to go up as part of a fiscal cliff deal. Obama has

said Republican leaders must accept that reality in order to

reach an agreement, but Biden indicated some flexibility on how

high tax rates for the wealthy would have to rise.

"The top brackets have to go up," he said. "Theoretically,

we can negotiate how far up, but we think it should go - the top

rate should go to 39.6 percent."

He said the administration was ready to negotiate reform to

entitlement programs and look at more spending cuts, but

believed that revenue in a final package had to be in the range

of $1.7 trillion over 10 years.

Biden pressed the administration's case that Congress should

agree now to extend tax cuts for middle-class Americans and

separate that from the debate over rates for the wealthiest.

"It would take 15 minutes from the time the decision was

made by the speaker of the House to pass and make permanent the

middle-class tax cut, the president would probably have me

sprint up to the Hill to bring the bill down for him to sign,"

he said.

"It is not complicated, and it doesn't even require our

Republican friends to say, 'we agree that we should raise taxes

on the top 2 percent.'"

He forecast that if both sides "act like adults" and can

compromise, economic growth will strengthen. The U.S. economy,

which added 146,000 jobs in November, had turned a corner and

was moving in the right direction, Biden said.