WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top Republican in the U.S. Congress, John Boehner, on Thursday said some additional revenue could be part of a deficit deal being negotiated by lawmakers, as long as it also includes significant reforms to benefits programs.
But the remarks by House of Representatives Speaker Boehner did not break the impasse over taxes as a congressional “super committee” struggles to reach a consensus on how to cut at least $1.2 trillion from deficits over 10 years.
An aide said Boehner was talking about non-tax revenues such as selling government land and other assets, increasing co-payments for healthcare and raising park admission fees.
Boehner repeated opposition to raising income tax rates, saying it would hurt economic growth.
Democrats called Boehner’s remarks, made to reporters, a rehash of a super committee offer that Republicans made last week. A letter sent to the super committee on Thursday by conservative Republicans suggested a hardening of their stand against tax increases.
The super committee of six Republicans and six Democrats faces a Nov. 23 deadline to strike a deficit-reduction deal to avoid triggering across-the-board spending cuts divided equally between military and domestic programs.
Failure by the super committee to reach a deal could heighten fears among investors worldwide that the U.S. political system is incapable of dealing with long-term deficit problems that could eventually damage U.S. economic growth.
Democrats have said they would be willing to agree to spending cuts for health and retirement programs. They offered a $3 trillion deficit-reduction plan that included tax increases and about $500 billion in cuts to healthcare programs -- an offer far above the super committee’s minimum goal of $1.2 trillion.
Democrats said they were hoping for signs that Republicans would be willing to move toward them on taxes.
“I think there’s room for revenues, but there clearly is a limit to the revenues that may be available,” Boehner told reporters, adding that Democrats have not offered enough concession on government health and retirement programs.
“Without real reform on the entitlement side, I don’t know how you put any revenue on the table,” he said.
Even though there is no sign yet of a bipartisan plan or even the outline of one, White House budget director Jack Lew told a Politico Playbook breakfast that talk of failure was premature.
“I think that we have a habit in Washington of trying to write obituaries while the patient is still fighting,” Lew said. “I do live my life as an optimist.”
Meanwhile, 33 Senate Republicans sent a letter to the super committee on Thursday urging them to avoid new tax increases. They also called for an overhaul of the Medicare and Medicaid health programs and the Social Security retirement program that puts them on the path to “fiscal solvency.”
Among those signing the letter were three Republicans who were part of the “Gang of Six” senators from both parties that earlier this year floated a deficit-reduction plan that included significant tax increases through a tax overhaul.
A dispute over taxes scuttled negotiations last summer between Boehner and Democratic President Barack Obama on a broad deficit package during a heated debate over the U.S. debt ceiling.
Boehner has been meeting this week with super committee Republicans to try to find a formula that could advance negotiations. But nothing has emerged and no bargaining sessions were scheduled this week for the 12 panel members.
“Speaker Boehner’s definition of revenue is anything that won’t break his pledge with Grover Norquist,” said a Democratic aide. “That’s why he’d be open to new fees on the elderly and Medicare recipients but he draws the line at asking hedge fund managers to pay their fair share.”
Norquist, who heads the conservative anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform, told Reuters on Thursday that he had been assured by Republicans that no tax increases would be part of the super committee deal. Most House Republicans have signed his group’s pledge to never vote for a tax hike.
“I have been talking with them (congressional Republicans) and I am assured that their position today is what it was going into August,” Norquist said. “They’re for coming up with a way to reduce spending ... There’s not going to be any net tax increase” in a super committee deal.
Republicans are banking that their refusal to raise any taxes will help them keep their House majority and even gain control of the Senate, and help give the Republican presidential nominee an edge over Obama in the November, 2012 elections.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)