The Times West Virginian

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December 3, 2012

‘Cliff’ talks: White House waiting on GOP move

Leaders told to stop using ‘political math’

WASHINGTON — Republicans have to stop using “political math” and say how much they are willing to raise tax rates on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans and then specify the spending cuts they want, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said in an interview that aired Sunday.

Just four weeks from the proverbial “fiscal cliff,” House Speaker John Boehner countered that Republicans have a plan for providing as much as $800 billion in new government revenue over the next decade and would consider the elimination of tax deductions on high-income earners. But when pressed on “Fox News Sunday” for precise details, the Ohio Republican declined to say.

There are “a lot of options in terms of how to get there,” Boehner said.

Both Boehner’s and Geithner’s latest remarks indicate it could be some time before serious negotiations begin between the White House and Republicans on how to avert economic calamity expected in less than a month when President George W. Bush-era tax cuts expire and automatic, across-the-board spending cuts kick in.

Last week, the White House delivered to Capitol Hill its opening plan: $1.6 trillion in higher taxes over a decade, hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending, a possible extension of the temporary Social Security payroll tax cut and enhancing the president’s power to raise the national debt limit.

In exchange, the president would back $600 billion in spending cuts, including $350 billion from Medicare and other health programs. But he also wants $200 billion in new spending for jobless benefits, public works projects and aid for struggling homeowners. His proposal for raising the ceiling on government borrowing would make it virtually impossible for Congress to block him.

Republicans said they responded in closed-door meetings with laughter and disbelief.

“I was just flabbergasted,” Boehner said. “I looked at him (Geithner) and I said, ‘You can’t be serious.’” Boehner described negotiations as going “nowhere, period,” and said “there’s clearly a chance” the nation will go over the cliff.

Geithner, the administration’s point man for negotiations, was slightly more optimistic while saying the ball was in Boehner’s court. But the treasury secretary also said he didn’t expect a counteroffer right away, as Republicans work to sort out tensions within the party in the wake of bruising national elections that left Democrats in charge of the White House and the Senate.

Boehner acknowledged in his interview, aired Sunday, that he wasn’t happy with public remarks by Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who said he was ready to go along with Obama’s plan to renew expiring income tax cuts for the majority of Americans and negotiate the rates on top earners later.

“They’re trying to figure out where they go next,” Geithner said of Republicans, “and we might need to give them a little time to figure out where they go next.”

He called the back-and-forth “normal political theater,” saying all that’s blocking a timely deal is the GOP’s reluctance to accept higher tax rates on the wealthy.

“It’s welcome that they’re recognizing that revenues are going to have to go up. But they haven’t told us anything about how far rates should go up ... (and) who should pay higher taxes,” Geithner said.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said Sunday that she will try to force a vote on the Senate-passed bill favored by Democrats to avert a fiscal cliff. But she was unlikely to line up enough Republicans to succeed.

Obama’s political team ramped up its efforts, blasting out an email Sunday night urging supporters to pressure Congress to extend tax cuts that would add up to about $2,000 for a middle-class family of four.

Stephanie Cutter, who was Obama’s deputy campaign manager, said in the email that the president was trying to get Congress to “do the right thing and act before the new year, but he needs our help. We’ve got a good track record here: When we make our voices heard and urge Congress to take action — whether it’s about health care, student loans, Wall Street reform, or ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ — they listen.”

Republican leaders have said they accept higher tax revenue overall, but only through what they call tax reform — closing loopholes and limiting deductions — and only coupled with tough measures to curb the explosive growth of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

“If we gave the president $1.6 trillion of new money, what do you think he’d do with it?” asked Boehner. “He’s going to spend it. It’s what Washington does.”

Cole didn’t back down Sunday on his earlier comments that Republicans should agree to Obama’s plan for continuing Bush’s tax rates for middle-class America and focus the negotiations on the other issues. Doing so, he said, would make the GOP position even stronger.    

“The reality is, nobody can look at this budget and think if you don’t reform entitlements you can balance it. You can give the president every tax increase he’s asked for, you’d still be in the hole,” he said.

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