Boehner: Republicans, Obama ‘far apart’ on ‘fiscal cliff’

Olivier Knox

With no evidence of concrete progress in talks to avoid the "fiscal cliff," President Barack Obama's Republican foes in Congress worked on Wednesday to turn up the heat on the White House. The GOP push came after the release of a new poll showing Americans side with the president with time running short to defuse the economic time bomb.

"The longer the White House slow-walks this discussion, the closer our economy gets to the fiscal cliff and the more American jobs are placed in jeopardy," Republican House Speaker John Boehner said, one day after discussing the standoff with Obama by telephone.

"There were some offers exchanged back and forth yesterday and, you know, the president and I had a pretty frank conversation about just how far apart we are," Boehner told reporters. "I remain the most optimistic person in this town, but we've got some serious differences."

The speaker, who has been negotiating with the president behind closed doors, said Obama had dropped his call for $1.6 trillion in new tax revenue to $1.4 trillion. But "that cannot pass the House or the Senate."

"We've been reasonable and responsible in our approach to this, and we're going to continue to do that. It's time for the president to do his part," he said.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also scolded Obama, accusing him of being "suddenly silent on the need for spending cuts." (Obama has offered hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts as part of a proposed fiscal cliff compromise, but the president's public message focuses far more heavily on his call to raise tax rates on the richest Americans, something Republicans have rejected.)

"He keeps talking about balance. That polls well. But when it comes to specific cuts, he's silent. All of a sudden it's all tax hikes all the time," McConnell said.

"Republicans have engaged in these discussions in good faith. We've agreed to make tough choices," the senator from Kentucky added.

The GOP has floated a proposal to raise about $800 billion in new tax revenue, chiefly by reducing or eliminating loopholes and deductions. The White House says that won't raise enough cash and wants rates to rise on income above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for families. If the two sides cannot reach a deal, Americans will see income tax rates climb to Clinton-era levels amid deep cuts to the military and domestic spending, a combination that experts warn could plunge the economy in a new recession.

"The question is, where's the president? Where's the only man in the country who can make it happen? Well, it appears that with just a couple weeks left to resolve this crisis, he's busy moving the goalposts. Instead of leading as he was elected to do, he's out campaigning and playing games with the nation's future," McConnell said.

McConnell's complaint about "campaigning" hinted at Republican frustration with public sentiment about the political conflict.

Obama does not enjoy majority support for his approach—though more Americans approve than disapprove, by 49 to 42 percent, according to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll. But 25 percent approve of Boehner's approach, against 49 percent who disapprove and 26 percent who say they don't know enough about the speaker's position.

Obama's support soars among liberals and Democrats, 8 in 10 of whom back his approach. Thirty-eight percent of Republicans and 35 percent of conservatives back Boehner's approach. And the speaker must be mindful that he will have to sell his fractious rank-and-file on any final deal.

While financial markets have yet to panic, uncertainty about whether polarized Washington can come together behind a compromise may be having a broad economic impact, according to the Business Roundtable, a business lobbying group comprising top CEOs.

In a survey about the fourth quarter of 2012, the top executives predicted a slight rise in expectations for hiring and a slight drop in sales and investment in a sluggish economy.

"CEOs anticipate continued slow overall economic growth for the next six months and have slightly lower expectations for sales and capital expenditures," said Jim McNerney, chairman of Business Roundtable and chairman, president and CEO of the Boeing Company. "The continued softness in quarterly sentiment reflects deep uncertainty about the future overall economic climate, realities of a slow-growing economy and frustration over Washington's inability to resolve looming 'fiscal cliff' issues."