WASHINGTON - For the first time since the Nov. 6 election, partisan bickering trumped bargaining Thursday as Democrats and Republicans vied for the political high ground in talks to avoid year-end tax increases and spending cuts that threaten harm to millions of middle class pocketbooks.
"No substantive progress has been made between the White House and the House" over the past two weeks toward averting the "fiscal cliff," House Speaker John Boehner declared after a private meeting with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner in the Capitol.
He blamed the White House and members of President Barack Obama's party for refusing to propose specific savings from the government's huge benefit programs. "Unfortunately, many Democrats continue to rule out sensible spending cuts that must be part of any significant agreement that will reduce our deficit," the Ohio Republican said.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., right, accompanied by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, after talks with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on the fiscal cliff negotiations.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rebutted moments later. "We're still waiting for a serious offer from Republicans," the Nevada Democrat said at a news conference. He noted that GOP leaders have refused the president's call to extend expiring tax cuts for the middle class while letting them lapse at upper incomes.
At the White House, presidential press secretary Jay Carney said flatly, "There can be no deal without rates on top earners going up."
Taking a confrontational, at times sarcastic tone, he said, "This should not be news to anyone on Capitol Hill. It is certainly not news to anyone in America who was not in a coma during the campaign season."
The White House also circulated a memo that said closing loopholes and limiting tax deductions - a preferred Republican alternative to Obama's call to raise high-end tax rates - would be likely to depress charitable donations and wind up leading to a middle class tax increase in the near future.
With barely a month remaining until year's end, the hardening of positions seemed more likely to mark a transition into hard bargaining rather than signal an end to efforts to achieve a compromise on the first post-election challenge of divided government.
Boehner suggested as much when one reporter asked if his comments meant he was breaking off talks with the White House and congressional Democrats.
"No, no, no. Stop," he quickly answered.
"I've got to tell you, I'm disappointed in where we are, and disappointed in what's happened over the last couple weeks. But going over the fiscal cliff is serious business."