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Night talks: Obama, Boehner meet on 'fiscal cliff'

Friday - 12/14/2012, 3:46am  ET

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012, where he accused President Barack Obama of not being serious about cutting government spending. Boehner is insisting that Obama wants far more in tax increases than spending reductions and appears willing to walk the economy "right up to the fiscal cliff." (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

ANDREW TAYLOR
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Face to face with time running short, President Barack Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner negotiated at the White House on Thursday night in what aides called "frank" talks aimed at breaking a stubborn deadlock and steering the nation away from an economy-threatening "fiscal cliff."

There was no sign of movement, as evidence mounted that the White House was moving away from politically difficult cuts like increasing the Medicare eligibility age. But some Republicans, especially in the Senate, advocated yielding to Obama on tax rates on the wealthy but continuing the battle on other fronts.

An increasing number of Senate Republicans have been pressing to yield on the question of allowing top tax rates to increase on income over $250,000 for couples, while extending Bush-era tax cuts for everyone else. That reflects increasing resignation within the GOP that Obama is going to prevail on the rate issue since the alternative is to allow taxes on all workers to go way up when Bush-era tax cuts expire on Dec. 31.

"I think it's time to end the debate on rates," Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said. "It's exactly what both parties are for. We're for extending the middle-class rates. We can debate the upper-end rates and what they are when we get into tax reform."

"He's got a full house and we're trying to draw an inside straight," Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said. When it was observed that making a straight would still be a losing hand, Isakson said: "Yeah, I know."

No details were released about the Obama-Boehner meeting, though the use of the word "frank" by both sides to describe the talks suggested the president and the speaker stuck hard to their opposing positions.

The meeting came shortly after Obama suggested that the sluggish pace of deficit-cutting talks between the administration and congressional Republicans was a result of a "contentious caucus" of GOP lawmakers who were making it difficult for Boehner to negotiate.

Boehner saw it differently. He said earlier in the day: "Unfortunately, the White House is so unserious about cutting spending that it appears willing to slow-walk any agreement and walk our economy right up to the fiscal cliff."

Boehner remains caught between a tea party faction and more pragmatic Republicans advising a tactical retreat. He dodged two questions on whether he would consider a legislative minuet that would allow for Obama's proposal on higher tax rates for upper earners to proceed despite GOP opposition to the idea. Such an approach was employed by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., when funding military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan when Democrats controlled Congress but President George W. Bush occupied the White House.

Thursday night's meeting was the two men's second face-to-face encounter in five days as they seek to find an agreement that avoids major tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to kick in in January. Also attending were Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Obama's chief congressional lobbyist, Rob Nabors.

Before the meeting, Boehner accused Obama of dragging out negotiations. Obama is insisting on higher tax rates for household incomes above $250,000 to cut federal deficits; Boehner says he opposes higher rates, though he has said he would be willing to raise tax revenue instead by closing loopholes and deductions.

Obama, in an interview during the day with WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, said that the notion of not raising taxes "has become sort of a religion for a lot of members of the Republican Party. I think Speaker Boehner has a contentious caucus, as his caucus is tough on him sometimes so he doesn't want to look like he's giving in to me somehow because that might hurt him in his own caucus."

While the impasse over the president's demand for higher tax rates continues to be a main obstacle in negotiations, Boehner complains that the president refuses to offer spending cuts to popular benefit programs like Medicare whose costs are rapidly rising.

The White House has pointed out that it has offered about $600 billion in specific savings over the next decade, including about $350 billion in spending reductions in health care programs such as Medicare.

Meanwhile, one of Obama's top Senate allies said Thursday that an increase in the Medicare eligibility age is "no longer one of the items being considered by the White House" in negotiations.

Sen. Dick Durbin told reporters that he did not get the information directly from the president or the White House. But as the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Durbin is regularly apprised of the status of negotiations by key players such as Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

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