WASHINGTON Republican House Speaker John Boehner accused U.S. President Barack Obama of pushing the country toward the "fiscal cliff" Friday and of wasting another week without progress in talks.
With three weeks left before a combination of steep tax hikes and spending cuts kicks in unless Congress intervenes, Boehner said the administration had adopted a "my way or the highway" approach and was engaging in "reckless talk" about going over the cliff.
"This isn't a progress report because there is no progress to report," Boehner told reporters at the Capitol. "The president has adopted a deliberate strategy to slow walk our economy right to the edge of the fiscal cliff."
Obama has insisted that tax cuts set to expire on December 31 be extended for middle-class taxpayers, but not for the wealthiest Americans. Boehner and Republicans oppose his plan to raise tax rates for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, preferring to find new revenues by closing loopholes and reducing deductions.
Boehner characterized as "reckless talk" Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's comment this week that the administration was prepared to go over the cliff if tax rates for the rich were not increased.
The downbeat assessment was in line with what Boehner has offered for weeks as the two sides hold their ground on Obama's call for raising tax rates and Republican calls for cuts in entitlements like the Medicare and Medicaid healthcare programs for the elderly and the poor.
Capitol Hill aides said the budget talks would be limited to Boehner and Obama and their staffs as the deadline approached, but Boehner said a telephone call between two on Wednesday and renewed staff talks on Thursday had not made progress.
"The phone call was pleasant, but it was just more of the same. Even the conversations the staff had yesterday were just more of the same. It's time for the president, if he's serious, to come back to us with a counter-offer," Boehner said.
Boehner and the House of Representatives leadership submitted their terms for a deal in a letter to the White House December 3.
Both sides have submitted plans that would cut deficits by more than $4 trillion over the next 10 years, but differ on how to achieve them. Republicans want drastically more spending cuts in entitlement programs, while Obama wants more in tax increases and more spending to boost the sluggish economy.
Boehner will have a challenge selling whatever agreement he might reach to conservative Tea Party sympathizers in the House, some of whom are openly critical of the concessions the speaker has already made, particularly his openness to revenue increases of any kind.
But with polling showing Americans will blame Republicans if the country goes off the "cliff," more House Republicans have been urging Boehner to get an agreement quickly, even if it means tax hikes for the wealthy.
Once the question of whether to raise tax rates is resolved, the two sides will try figure out a way to deal with the spending cuts, perhaps postponing or trimming them. They will also work toward a longer-term deficit-reduction package to be taken up after the new Congress is sworn in next month.
"It's going to require both leaders," Obama senior adviser David Axelrod told MSNBC. "Each is going to have to make sacrifices in order to get this done. I think everybody recognizes the consequences of not getting it done."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are "being kept in the loop," said an aide close to both Democratic leaders, ready to work out any details. (Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Rachelle Younglai, David Lawder and Richard Cowan; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Doina Chiacu)