By Aruna Viswanatha
WASHINGTON, Dec 2 (Reuters) - U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner pressed Republicans to offer a plan to increase revenues and cut government spending, and predicted they would agree to raise tax rates on the wealthiest to secure a deal by year-end to avoid the "fiscal cliff."
In a blitz of appearances on five Sunday morning talk shows, Geithner insisted that tax rates on the richest needed to go up in order to reach a deal, a step Republicans have so far resisted, and he dismissed much of the contentious rhetoric from last week as "political theater."
"The only thing standing in the way of [a deal] would be a refusal by Republicans to accept that rates are going to have to go up on the wealthiest Americans. And I don't really see them doing that," Geithner, who is leading the Obama administration's fiscal cliff negotiations, said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
The comments mark the latest round of high-stakes gamesmanship focusing on whether to extend the temporary tax cuts that originated under former President George W. Bush beyond their Dec. 31 expiration date for all taxpayers, as Republicans want, or just for those with incomes under $250,000, as President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats want.
Republicans, who control the House of Representatives but are the minority in the Senate, have expressed a willingness to raise revenues by taking steps such a limiting tax deductions, but they have largely held the line on increasing rates.
A handful of House Republicans expressed flexibility beyond that of their party leaders about considering an increase in tax rates for the wealthiest, as long as they are accompanied by significant spending cuts.
But most House Republicans refuse to back higher rates, preferring to raise revenue through tax reform.
"There's not going to be an agreement without rates heading up," Geithner said bluntly on CNN's "State of the Union."
The scheduled expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts and automatic reductions government spending set to take hold early next year would suck about $600 billion out of the economy and could spark a recession. The Obama administration and Congress are engaged in talks to avoid the fiscal cliff with a less-drastic plan to reduce U.S. budget deficits.
WHO SHOULD PAY?
Geithner's Sunday interviews are part of a broader push to build public support for the Democrats' position in the negotiations. Obama has made campaign-style appearances, including visiting a Pennsylvania toy factory on Friday where he portrayed Republicans as scrooges at Christmas time.
While breaking no new ground on the Obama administration's position on Sunday, Geithner repeatedly urged Republicans to provide their own plan.
"They said they're prepared to raise revenues but haven't said how, or how much, or who should pay," Geithner said on NBC.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Friday, the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, asked Democrats to accept an increase in the Medicare eligibility age, impose higher Medicare premiums for the wealthy, and slow cost-of-living increases for Social Security.
At least one of those suggestions appears to have White House support. On CNN, Geithner said the administration's proposal included a modest rise in premiums for higher-income Medicare beneficiaries.
"What we can't do is sit here trying to figure out what works for them," Geithner said. "The ball really is with them now."
The administration has said it is willing to find savings in the Medicare and Medicaid healthcare programs for the elderly and poor, but Geithner reiterated in an interview with ABC's "This Week" that it would only be open to looking at changes in the Social Security retirement program outside of the context of a fiscal cliff deal.