The president and House Republicans continued to snipe at each other Wednesday over the impending set of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts known as the fiscal cliff. They traded accusations and blame during another day with plenty of talk, but — until late in the day, at least — no negotiations.
The Associated Press, citing a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said President Obama and Boehner spoke briefly Wednesday afternoon by phone. "The call raises the possibility that negotiations will soon resume between the White House and congressional leaders," the AP reported.
Earlier in the day, the two sides were speaking publicly, but not to one another. The Republicans went first:
"We want to sit down with the president. We want to talk specifics," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia. "We put an offer on the table now. He's out of hand rejected that. Where are the specifics? Where are the discussions? Nothing is going on."
Boehner, the Ohio Republican, agreed:
"If the president doesn't agree with our proposal and our outline, I think he's got an obligation to send one to the Congress — and a plan that can pass both chambers of Congress. If you look at the plans that the White House has talked about thus far, they couldn't pass either house of the Congress."
Of course, neither could the plan Boehner has tabled, with a promise of $800 billion in revenue raised by closing unspecified tax loopholes.
The White House spent a considerable amount of effort in public on Wednesday trying to demolish the mathematical and political premises of that proposal.
White House economic adviser Jason Furman gave reporters a detailed handout explaining why — unless you wanted to eliminate or severely curtail tax deductions for the middle class or for charitable giving — the Republican plan would only produce $450 billion in revenue, not $800 billion.
President Obama went before the Business Roundtable, a group of corporate CEOs who have not been friendly to him in the past, to suggest that no deal could be done until the Republicans gave in on raising tax rates. Said Obama:
"Now, we've seen some movement over the last several days among some Republicans. I think there's a recognition that maybe they can accept some rate increases as long as it's combined with serious entitlement reform and additional spending cuts. If we can get the leadership on the Republican side to take that framework, to acknowledge that reality, then the numbers actually aren't that far apart."
In which case, the president said, we could get a deal in about a week.
But that makes it sound too easy. Raising tax rates is by far the most difficult issue for Republicans and would probably have to be addressed with a creative plan to help Boehner deal with opposition among his conservative House majority.
But White House officials seemed to be suggesting that Obama might not even sit down with Republicans at the negotiating table until they cried uncle on tax rates.
On Wednesday, Obama also delivered a warning to Republicans not to tie the fiscal cliff debate to the fight over raising the country's borrowing limit:
"If Congress in any way suggests that they're going to tie negotiations to debt ceiling votes and take us to the brink of default once again as part of a budget negotiation — which by the way we have never done in our history until we did it last year — I will not play that game."
The president once again sketched out a two-step process: By the end of this year, come up with a down payment on revenues, spending cuts and entitlement reforms. And then: "We have open running room next year to deal with a whole host of other issues like infrastructure, tax reform and immigration reform that will further make America Inc. competitive; that's one option," said Obama.