With just three weeks left for lawmakers to avert a fiscal crisis, US President Barack Obama and House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner met privately at the White House on Sunday as a top Republican senator suggested that his party should perhaps accede to Obama’s demand to raise the top tax rates so attention can shift to making serious cuts in benefit programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
Administration officials would not offer details of the discussion, but the disclosure of the meeting indicated that private discussions continue in the face of Republican leaders’ public statements deploring the lack of progress and the president’s refusal so far to specify the sort of deep, long-term reductions in spending for social programs that they insist upon as a condition of their support for raising taxes on high earners.
The White House and Boehner’s office issued identical statements afterward that said “the lines of communication remain open.”
The meeting was the first face-to-face negotiation between the president and the speaker since a session three weeks ago, when they were joined by the House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. They were the first one-on-one deficit talks between Obama and Boehner since summer last year, when the search for a “grand bargain” on taxes and spending ultimately failed.
The latest meeting gave rise to renewed optimism that a deal could be reached before the year ends.
“My guess is still that we will reach a deal, but I do not think that anything is either certain or imminent,” Republican Representative Tom Cole said on Sunday night. “If they reach a deal, I suspect the majority of our conference will support the speaker. I hope the president can command equal support on his side of the aisle.”
Any optimism is a step forward from Friday, when Boehner told reporters that he did not have a progress report because there was “no progress to report.”
However, the ups and downs of the search for a deal to avert a fiscal crisis have been in large measure for public consumption. Between public statements and news conferences, the staffs of the president and the speaker have been in close contact.
Just hours before the White House meeting, Republican Senator Bob Corker said on Fox News Sunday that a small, but growing group of Republicans had begun considering acquiescing on tax rates so the negotiations could shift to entitlement programs.
Corker, a member of the Senate Banking Committee who had presented a deficit-reduction plan of his own, said on the program that if Republicans gave in to the president’s chief demand, then “all of a sudden, the shift goes back to entitlements and maybe it puts us in a place where we actually can do something that really saves the nation.”
Republicans have been insisting that the Obama administration agree to substantial savings in entitlement programs as the two sides negotiate how to narrow the country’s huge deficits. However, Corker is part of a group of Republicans who say that the party ultimately will have to yield to the Obama demand of higher tax rates for top earners, potentially back to the levels that prevailed under former US president Bill Clinton.
Corker’s comments came as key figures on network news programs mixed cautious words of optimism over the negotiations between the White House and congressional Republicans with dire warnings about what a failure to act might bring.
IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde warned that such a failure was the gravest threat now facing the still-fragile US economy — greater than the European debt crisis or any uncertainty in China.
The overall result could be zero growth next year, not the 2.1 percent projected by the IMF, she said on CNN’s State of the Union.