WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner accused the White House of dragging its feet on negotiations to avoid the so-called "fiscal cliff," while Vice President Joe Biden suggested, with a snap of his fingers, that a deal could be reached quickly if Republicans would agree to let the top income tax rate go up.
Such were the contrasting messages being put forth Friday on the fiscal cliff — the automatic tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect in the new year.
Hoping to prod Democrats to offer new concessions on spending and taxes, Boehner accused President Barack Obama of an effort to "slow-walk" negotiations on the fiscal cliff in his zeal to raise taxes.
Speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill at the end of another week that saw little progress in the stalemate between the GOP and the White House, Boehner said Obama had "wasted another week" by refusing to engage after the House leadership put forward a counterproposal to avoid the fiscal cliff.
"This isn't a progress report because there's no progress to report," the Ohio Republican said.
Boehner's camp downplayed a report saying he had asked that the talks be narrowed to include just him and the president.
Obama and Boehner, the key players who must ultimately bring their respective parties along should a deal be struck, spoke Wednesday in a telephone call that Boehner described Friday as "pleasant" but "just more of the same."
"It's time for the president, if he's serious, to come back to us with a counteroffer," he said. "When is he going to take a step toward us?"
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in a news conference about an hour after Boehner's, asked why the House was not still in session to handle such an effort.
"Why are we not here to even debate the middle-income tax cut? Could it be because the Republicans are holding the middle-income tax cuts, as they have all along, hostage to tax cuts for the wealthy?" she asked.
Income tax rates are set to rise for all taxpayers at the end of the year when the George W. Bush-era tax cuts expire and have become embroiled in a larger battle over crafting a deficit-reduction package.
Obama had no public events on his schedule Friday. Speaking at a diner in Arlington, Va., where he lunched with middle-class taxpayers, Biden made the clearest statement yet of what appears to be Obama's preferred path away from the fiscal cliff.
Biden's visit was part of an ongoing effort by the White House to pressure Republicans to extend lower tax rates on the first $250,000 of families' income. The top tax rate, however, would go up under the administration's plan.
"The top brackets have to go up. This is not a negotiable issue," Biden said.
"The downside of going down this cliff is real," he added. "This is no time to add any additional burden for middle-class people."