Little ground gained in debt talks
WASHINGTON — Talk of compromise on a broad budget deal greeted returning lawmakers on Monday, but agreement seemed far off as the White House and congressional Republicans ceded little ground on a key sticking point: whether to raise revenue through higher tax rates or by limiting tax breaks and deductions.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, pressed his case for revenue derived by reducing tax loopholes rather than raising tax rates on wealthy taxpayers, as President Obama insists.
Boehner, voicing the Republican stance, said: “The American people support an approach that involves both major spending cuts and additional revenue via tax reform with lower tax rates.”
At the White House, Obama spokesman Jay Carney reiterated the president's pledge not to sign legislation that extends tax rates to the top 2 percent of income earners — households with incomes over $250,000. “That is a firm position,” Carney said.
Congress and Obama have until the end of the year to avoid across-the-board tax increases that would do away with rates set during the administration of President George W. Bush and restore higher tax rates in place during President Bill Clinton's administration when the economy was robust and the federal government had a budget surplus.
White House and congressional leadership aides said Obama spoke separately with House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid during the weekend. The aides would not reveal details of the conversations. Obama last met with the bipartisan congressional leadership to discuss the fiscal cliff on Nov. 16. No new meetings have been announced.
Boehner and other GOP leaders planned to meet on Wednesday with members of a bipartisan coalition of former members of Congress and business leaders that has advocated cuts in spending in major health care programs as well as changes in the tax code to raise more money but also to lower rates.
Obama met with some members of that coalition earlier this month. Top officials from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and from the Business Roundtable met with senior White House aides on Monday.
In addition to looming tax increases, the new year could result in steep spending cuts in defense and domestic programs. Lawmakers and the White House fear that such a combined “fiscal cliff” would undercut the military and set back an economic recovery.
Looking to buttress their case on taxes, White House economists warned on Monday that the uncertainty of a potential hike in taxes next year for middle-class taxpayers could hurt consumer confidence during the crucial holiday shopping season.
In a new report, Obama's National Economic Council and his Council of Economic Advisers said that if lawmakers don't halt the automatic increase in taxes for households earning less than $250,000, consumers might even curtail their shopping during the current holiday season.
“As we approach the holiday season, which accounts for close to one-fifth of industry sales, retailers can't afford the threat of tax increases on middle-class families,” the report said.
The White House report also said a sudden increase in taxes for middle-income taxpayers would reduce consumer spending in 2013 by nearly $200 billion, significantly slowing the economic recovery.
The figures echo estimates by private forecasters and by the Congressional Budget Office.