WASHINGTON — Fiscal cliff talks at a partisan standoff, President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner swapped barbed political charges Wednesday yet carefully left room for further negotiations on an elusive deal to head off year-end tax increases and spending cuts that threaten the national economy.
Republicans should "peel off the war paint" and take the deal he's offering, Obama said sharply at the White House. He buttressed his case by noting he had won re-election with a call for higher taxes on the wealthy, then added pointedly that the nation aches for conciliation, not a contest of ideologies, after last week's mass murder at a Connecticut elementary school.
But he drew a quick retort from Boehner when the White House threatened to veto a fallback bill drafted by House Republicans that would prevent tax increases for all but million-dollar earners. The president will bear responsibility for "the largest tax increase in history" if he makes good on that threat, the Ohio Republican declared.
In fact, it's unlikely the legislation will get that far as a divided government careens into the final few days of a struggle that affects the pocketbooks of millions and blends lasting policy differences with deep political mistrust.
Boehner expressed confidence the Republicans' narrow so-called Plan B bill would clear the House today despite opposition from some anti-tax dissidents. The leadership worked to shore up the measure's chances late in the day by setting a vote on a companion bill to replace across-the-board cuts in the Pentagon and some domestic programs with targeted reductions elsewhere in the budget, an attempt to satisfy defense-minded lawmakers.
With Christmas approaching, Republicans also said they were hopeful the tax measure could quickly form the basis for a final bipartisan "fiscal cliff" compromise once it arrives in the Senate.
Democrats, in the majority in the Senate, gave no indication of their plans.
On paper, the two sides are relatively close to an agreement on major issues, each having offered concessions in an intensive round of talks that began late last week. But political considerations are substantial, particularly for Republicans.
In the talks to date, Obama is now seeking $1.2 trillion in higher tax revenue, down from $1.6 trillion. He also has softened his demand for higher tax rates on household incomes so they would apply to incomes over $400,000 instead of the $250,000 he cited during his successful campaign for a new term.
He also has offered more than $800 billion in spending cuts over a decade, half of it from Medicare and Medicaid.
In a key concession to Republicans, the president also has agreed to slow the rise in cost-of-living-increases in Social Security and other benefit programs.
By contrast, Boehner's most recent offer allowed for $1 trillion in higher taxes over a decade, with higher rates for annual incomes over $1 million. He's also seeking about $1 trillion in spending cuts.