Tempers Fray as U.S. Moves Closer to Fiscal Cliff


House Speaker John Boehner accused the White House on Friday of having "wasted another week" in talks to avert a fiscal crisis that could plunge the world's biggest economy into recession.

Holding a press conference to give a status update before the weekend as the clock ticks down to potential economic disaster, Boehner said there had been "no progress" and laid the blame squarely on President Barack Obama.

The White House shot back that a deal could be reached in "15 minutes" if Boehner agreed to raise taxes on the rich, a major sticking-point in the high-stakes negotiations to avoid the so-called "fiscal cliff."

Discussions -- including a mid-week phone call between Boehner and President Barack Obama -- have stalled on how to avoid the looming tax hikes and spending cuts set to take effect in January, and Boehner accused the White House of recklessly pushing the country to the fiscal brink.

The top Republican called on Obama to now submit a plan that could pass muster in Congress.

"This isn't a progress report because there is no progress to report," Boehner said. "When it comes to the fiscal cliff that's threatening our economy and threatening jobs, the White House has wasted another week."

Obama sent Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to Capitol Hill last week with an opening gambit, proposing $1.6 trillion in new tax revenues over the next decade, mainly from higher tax rates on the wealthiest two percent of Americans.

A Republican counter-offer included a plan for $800 billion in tax revenue raised through closing loopholes and ending some deductions. Both plans were pronounced dead on arrival.

Vice President Joe Biden said it was Republican intransigence over income tax rates which was holding up a possible deal.

A bill could be done in "15 minutes" if Boehner eased his hard line on tax rates, Biden said at a diner in suburban Virginia as he met ordinary Americans to discuss the crisis, snapping his fingers and saying it could be done "like that."

Biden added that while the White House would prefer rates on the richest two percent of Americans to return right up to Clinton-era levels, the administration was willing to negotiate with Republicans.

Boehner too suggested there might be wiggle room in the negotiations, which must thrash out a deal by year end or have taxes rise by what the White House forecasts will be $2,200 per U.S. household.

The top rate is due to rise from 35 percent to 39.6 percent if Bush-era tax cuts expire.

Boehner did not reject outright a query about a potential compromise that would see the rate rise to 37 percent while adding protections for small businesses, a group Republicans argue would be hurt by the higher tax rate.

Geithner raised eyebrows Wednesday when he said the Obama administration was "absolutely" ready for the economy to tumble over the cliff if a deficit reduction deal did not include higher tax rates for the wealthy.

Boehner on Friday described the comments as "reckless talk."

"I came out the day after the election to put revenues on the table, take a step towards the president, to try to resolve this. When is he going to take a step towards us?"

The Democratic leader in the House, Nancy Pelosi took issue with Boehner describing Obama's approach as "slow-walking the economy to the fiscal cliff," arguing it was Republicans who offered an "empty letter" instead of laying out the specifics of their plan.

"This is a moment of truth. The clock is ticking," said Pelosi, who met Obama Friday at the White House to discuss the crisis.

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