WASHINGTON — Talks between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner on a deal to avoid the fiscal cliff were overshadowed by political skirmishing Wednesday, sapping the momentum of just a few days ago.
With less than two weeks before $500 billion in automatic tax hikes and spending cuts take effect, Obama said he was hopeful progress in negotiations could be resumed. He called on lawmakers to start compromising and keep Washington political battles in perspective in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., elementary school massacre.
‘‘There’s been a lot of posturing up on Capitol Hill instead of going ahead and getting stuff done, and we’ve been wasting a lot of time,’’ Obama said. “If you just pull back from the immediate political battles, if you kind of peel off the partisan war paint, then we should be able to get something done.’’
But it was beginning to look a lot like postponement for Obama’s annual Christmas break in Hawaii, so he could continue working to prevent a political and economic crisis from developing on Jan.1. Frustration remained the reigning sentiment Wednesday, even while the outlines of a deal appeared tantalizingly close after earlier concessions from both sides.
The House was poised to vote Thursday on a “Plan B” bill that Boehner devised outside the negotiations to extend Bush-era tax cuts for everyone except people who earn more than $1 million. Obama Wednesday threatened to veto the bill, and Senate Democrats have said it will not pass the Senate. Democrats have dismissed Boehner’s move as a ploy intended to give the speaker and Republicans political cover in the event fiscal cliff talks end in failure.
Boehner showed no sign of backing down and appeared determined to use his measure to strengthen his hand in negotiations. In a very brief appearance at the Capitol, he declared that his “Plan B’’ measure will give Obama two options.
“He can call on Senate Democrats to pass that bill,’’ Boehner declared, “or he can be responsible for the largest tax increase in American history.’’
It’s a high-risk gambit by the speaker. Polls show that most Americans would blame Republicans if the fiscal cliff is reached without a solution, a situation that would risk a recession later in 2013 unless the scope of the spending cuts and tax increases is reduced.
How much Boehner’s bill with its $1 million threshold for tax increases would mitigate fallout for the GOP is difficult to predict. Republicans who vote for it would certainly have an answer if they are blamed for taking the country over the fiscal cliff, but some independent voters might view Republicans as refusing to compromise with the newly reelected president.
Democrats attempted to paint the move as inadequate to meet the problems at hand, in terms of increasing revenues and reducing spending. The White House said Boehner’s plan would cut only $300 billion from the deficit, through increased revenues from millionaires.
“The deficit reduction is minimal, and perversely, given its authors, solely through tax increases with no spending cuts,’’ White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said. “This approach does not meet the test of balance, and the president would veto the legislation in the unlikely event of its passage.’’
Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck issued a response to Obama’s veto threat: “The White House’s opposition to a backup plan to ensure taxes don’t rise on American families is growing more bizarre and irrational by the day.’’
Obama has called on the House to pass a Senate-approved measure extending tax cuts for families earning less than $250,000, although in budget talks earlier this week he proposed setting the threshold at $400,000, an attempted concession for Republicans. In another concession, Obama has said he is willing to reduce future increases in Social Security benefit payments, a move that has angered Democrats.
Boehner is calling for increasing revenues by limiting tax deductions and recently signaled a willingness to raise taxes on taxpayers earning over $1 million.
The political calculus in the House is complicated by strongly antitax conservatives. It is not clear that Boehner can win passage of his $1 million cutoff, because more conservative members of his caucus have expressed opposition to a measure allowing taxes to rise for anyone, even at that high level. These conservatives are holding out for a deal that would extend the tax cuts for all taxpayers, from the poor to the middle class to the very wealthy. Obama has categorically rejected that approach.
Boehner may have received a boost in his quest for Republican votes Wednesday when Americans for Tax Reform, the organization operated by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, declared that voting for the “Plan B’’ bill would not violate the group’s antitax pledge that most congressional Republicans have signed. Extending tax cuts for those earning $1 million or less, after having voted twice to extend tax cuts for all taxpayers, is consistent with the pledge.
The difficulty pursuading conservatives to support the bill illustrates one of the dilemmas for Boehner: He will need a coalition of House Democrats and Republicans to win passage of a broader compromise if he negotiates one with Obama. But forging such a compromise could create a rebellion in the Republican majority and cost him his gavel.