With talks on avoiding the "fiscal cliff" locked in a pattern of public battling and private negotiating, President Barack Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner met behind closed doors for 50 minutes at the White House on Thursday.
Both sides agreed the discussion in the Oval Office was "frank" and insisted that the "lines of communication remain open." (In diplomat-speak, a "frank" discussion typically means "an argument.") Neither side reported any progress.
The meeting was their first since Sunday, though they had spoken on the telephone since then. The talks came amid public pessimism in Congress that Obama and Boehner can work out a deal to avoid the painful across-the-board income tax hikes and deep government spending cuts that, together, could plunge the weak economy into a new recession.
Before the negotiations, Obama did a round of local and regional television interviews, part of an aggressive public relations campaign to keep the American public on his side. He sat down with stations from Philadelphia, Miami, Minneapolis and Sacramento, Calif.
"I remain hopeful that we can get this resolved. It shouldn't be hard to get resolved," the president told WCCO in Minneapolis.
The discussions were occurring under a mutually agreed-upon shroud of secrecy, making it impossible to know whether public positions bore any relationship to private negotiating.
But in what has emerged as a defining battle over the proper role of government, the two sides seemed wide apart on how much to raise taxes and how much to cut Washington's spending. Obama has pushed for $1.4 trillion in tax increases, notably by hiking tax rates paid by the richest Americans, and has offered about $600 billion in cuts. Boehner's offer is practically the mirror image: Republicans want $1.4 trillion in cuts with just $800 billion in new tax revenue. The GOP has opposed raising tax rates. Obama made letting Bush-era tax cuts expire on income above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for families practically the centerpiece of his reelection campaign.
Failure to reach a compromise by Jan. 1 will trigger across-the-board income tax increases that could cost the average family $2,200 in 2013, and painful government spending cuts affecting domestic and military programs. The combination, many economists say, risks plunging the economy into a new recession.
"So the big problem right now is that the Republicans in the House are resistant to the idea of the wealthiest Americans paying higher tax rates and I understand they have a philosophical objection," Obama told WCCO. "On the other hand, we're willing to make some really tough decisions about spending cuts, we've already made a trillion dollars' worth of spending cuts."
Boehner rejected that idea. "It's clear the president's just not serious about cutting spending. But spending is the problem," he said at a morning press conference. "The president wants to pretend that spending isn't the problem. That's why we don't have an agreement," he said. "If the president will step up and show us he's willing to make the spending cuts that are needed I think we can do some real good in the days ahead."
Obama and Boehner's discussion came after a day filled with the usual acrimonious back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans on the best way to avoid the cliff. But the day was notable for a new Democratic confidence about rejecting Republican calls to raise the eligibility age for Medicare.
The No. 2 Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin, told reporters, "My understanding is that is no longer one of the items being considered by the White House." He later said he had not heard that message from the White House.
And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has long warned against going down that path, seemed to suggest that that would be a bridge too far to cross for her caucus. Amid fierce conservative opposition to raising taxes, House Democrats could be called upon to provide a large chunk of the majority needed to pass any fiscal cliff compromise.
"Don't even think about raising the Medicare age," Pelosi said. "We are not throwing America's seniors over the cliff to give a tax cut to the wealthiest people in America. We have clarity on that."
Asked whether she was worried that Obama might offer deeper concessions on curbing entitlement spending than House Democrats could accept, Pelosi seemed to dismiss those concerns.
"The president knows our views, shares our values. We respect his leadership, and the speaker may need our votes to go forward," she said. "So I'm confident about how the president is leading us."
With talks seemingly at a stalemate, Boehner denied Democrats' suggestions that he may be stalling a deal in order to stave off a potential conservative revolt that could cost him the top job in Congress.
"I'm not concerned about my job as speaker. What I'm concerned about is doing the right thing," Boehner told reporters at his weekly press conference.
And a staunchly conservative senator, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, predicted that Obama would win the fight over raising taxes.