WASHINGTON -- In spite of stepped-up talks between the White House and Congress over the impending "fiscal cliff," leaders on each side of Capitol Hill Tuesday signaled that little progress has been made with 21 days before the start of mandatory tax hikes and budget cuts.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who met with President Barack Obama over the weekend, said the White House still has not gotten serious, declaring the administration has yet to offer anything that can pass muster with the GOP.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) countered that Boehner's view was "strange," and said that the GOP's refusal to offer "anything" will make it extremely hard to find an agreement before Christmas.
The administration has said it wants to raise about $1.6 trillion in revenue over 10 years while finding some $360 billion in Medicare savings on top of some $1 trillion in budget cuts enacted last year. It also wants to extend emergency unemployment benefits, the payroll tax cut, and spend about $50 billion on infrastructure.
Boehner remained critical of the White House in a House floor speech Tuesday afternoon, saying it has offered little in the way of cuts.
"If the president doesn't agree with our approach, he's got an obligation to put forward a plan that can pass both chambers of Congress," said Boehner. "Right now, the American people have to be scratching their heads and wondering when is the president going to get serious."
"We know that the president wants more stimulus spending and an increase in the debt limit without any cuts or reforms," Boehner said, referring also to the nation's borrowing limit, which the country is likely to hit soon in the new year. "That's not fixing our problem. Frankly, it's making it worse."
The "fiscal cliff" is the combination of spending cuts and tax hikes mandated by Congress to kick in next month, including the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts.
Democrats and the president intend to maintain the lower Bush-era rates for nearly all of the country, while letting them increase for the top 2 percent of earners, covering income above $250,000 for couples and $200,000 for individuals. Republican leaders are insisting that all the tax cuts remain in place.
Reid, speaking to reporters after Boehner's speech, put the onus back on the speaker.
"Republicans have not offered anything specific in cuts whatsoever and of course nothing specific in revenue whatsoever -- all generalizations," Reid said. "Republicans want more spending cuts -- tell us what you want. We can't read their minds. We're not going to make their proposal for them."
Reid warned that with the clock ticking, it is getting harder to get a deal done before the holidays.
"This is not something we can do easily -- at least as far as bill-drafting goes. But until we hear something from the Republicans, there's nothing to draft," Reid said. "I think it's going to be extremely difficult to get it done before Christmas, but it could be done."
Republican leaders have said they are willing to raise revenue, but have not specified from where, saying only that it could come from increased economic activity spurred by tax cuts. They have also not said what cuts they would make, beyond pointing to past House budgets.
Boehner noted that letting the taxes go up on the wealthy would raise a relatively small amount compared to the annual deficit. Estimates of revenue raised through hiking taxes on the top 2 percent run up to about $80 billion a year, while the annual deficit has been more than $1 trillion recently.
"Even if we did exactly what the president wants, we would see red ink for as far as the eye could see," Boehner said. "That's not fixing our problem, either."
In spite of Boehner's professed position on taxes, some Republicans have suggested that their party accept the Democrats' rates to stave off at least part of the consequences of reaching the cliff, then come back next year and try to get a deal on tax reform that brings rates back down.
Reid suggested that the disunity in the GOP was part of Boehner's problem, and that other members of Boehner's leadership team were feuding.
"Boehner's having trouble finding help from his leadership as to what they're to do," Reid said. "The speaker has to make an important decision -- whether he's going to save his speakership or the country."
Boehner Spokesman Michael Steel took issue with Reid's characterization. “I assume the Senate Majority Leader will either explain the message he received –- which has no basis in fact –- or apologize to the press for misleading them,” Steel said.
Democrats have signaled broadly that they would be willing to engage in tax reform -- especially if the middle class rates are protected.
"All of this would be a down payment as we go forward into the next Congress," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), speaking shortly after Boehner.
Pelosi argued that history shows the Clinton-era rates were successful. "Those higher tax cuts only increase the debt, and they have not created jobs," she said.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Tuesday that he found Boehner's comments "disappointing."
"The president of the United States has put clearly on the table for everybody to see throughout the course of the campaign how he wanted to increase revenues," Hoyer said, noting that Obama's proposal contains 23 pages of specific spending cuts in entitlements and discretionary spending.
"Mr. Boehner just got on the floor and said Mr. President, tell us the spending cuts. Now why does he do that? Because they don't want to outline the spending cuts any more than Mr. Romney wanted to do throughout the entire campaign," Hoyer said.
This article has been updated to include additional comments from Steny Hoyer, Michael Steel and Harry Reid.