U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner offered no concrete signs of progress on Tuesday on the "fiscal cliff" talks but said he remained hopeful that both sides would reach an agreement by the end-of-year deadline.
Amid signs the White House and Boehner's office are making headway in the talks, Boehner repeated his now-familiar call for President Barack Obama to offer a new proposal to avert the automatic steep tax hikes and spending cuts set for the end of the year unless Congress intervenes.
"I'm an optimist. I'm hopeful we can reach an agreement," Boehner said on the House floor.
While Boehner demanded more specific spending cuts from Obama, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration had submitted extensive proposals to reduce spending but Republicans had not offered specifics on increasing revenues.
"There is a deal out there that's possible," Carney told reporters. It could include reduced spending, more revenues and tax reform as long as Republicans accepted higher tax rates on the wealthiest Americans, he said.
"We do believe the parameters of a compromise are pretty clear," Carney said.
The pace of staff-level talks has quickened since Boehner met on Sunday with Obama at the White House in a meeting that the Republican described as "nice" and "cordial."
But Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said it would be difficult to reach an agreement before Christmas.
"Until we hear something from Republicans, there's nothing to draft," Reid told reporters, referring to writing legislation based on a deal. "It's going to be extremely difficult to get it done before Christmas."
The two major elements of the fiscal cliff are broad spending reductions starting Jan. 1 and tax cuts that expire at the end of the year. Economists have warned the fragile economy could slip back into recession without a deal.
Obama and Boehner have exchanged opening proposals aimed at cutting deficits by more than $4 trillion over the next 10 years, but they differ on how to get there.
Obama and Democrats demand that tax rates rise for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. Republicans want existing lower rates continued for all brackets and prefer to raise more revenue by eliminating tax loopholes and reducing deductions.
Republicans also want deeper spending cuts than those sought by Obama and fellow Democrats, particularly on social entitlement programs like the government-funded Medicare and Medicaid healthcare plans.
Stocks rose on Tuesday, with the S&P 500 reaching its highest close since Election Day. Markets endured a sharp selloff after the Nov. 6 re-election of Obama, as investors focused on the fiscal cliff concerns.
"I guess in our own dysfunctional way, there is progress," said Frank Davis, director of sales and trading at LEK Securities in New York. "Since conversations are occurring, it clarifies at least they are taking some action. My personal gut is they'll jostle this into the holiday week and try to do a last-minute push."
FRAMEWORK FOR A DEAL
While senior figures from both parties caution they are far from a deal, a softening of partisan rhetoric in recent days and the increased frequency of talks has created speculation that negotiations are going well.
If there is a fiscal cliff deal, congressional leaders will have to decide the most efficient way to move the controversial legislation forward. Aides said those decisions had not yet been made as negotiators were still focused on the elements of a possible deal and would then figure out the legislative vehicle to carry out any fiscal cliff measure.
The most frequently discussed scenario on Capitol Hill involves Democrats getting the higher rates on the top earners in exchange for significant concessions on reducing costs in entitlement programs.
The two parties could then work together next year on comprehensive tax reform aimed at creating more revenues, in part by eliminating some tax breaks.
A group of corporate leaders urged a fiscal cliff compromise that would include both higher taxes and spending cuts, but it did not take sides on whether the revenues should be from raising taxes on the wealthiest, as Obama wants, or from limiting deductions and closing loopholes, as Republicans want.
"For far too long, political paralysis has fueled global uncertainty that discourages businesses from investing and hiring new workers," the CEOs said in a letter sent under the umbrella of the Business Roundtable, a non-partisan group that promotes business.
Complicating the talks is the looming need for an increase in U.S. borrowing authority that Obama wants before Congress wraps up for the year. Without the authority, the government will hit its $16.4 trillion borrowing limit by year's end and run out of steps to stave off default by mid-February.
Obama has asked for the power to raise U.S. borrowing authority without legislation from Congress in hopes of avoiding another confrontation with Republicans like the 2011 showdown that led to an embarrassing downgrade of the U.S. credit rating.
Also in the mix is a payroll tax "holiday" set to expire, which, if not extended, will quickly reduce the take-home pay of a large segment of the U.S. workforce.
The holiday, now in its second year, has been providing workers with an average of about $1,000 a year in extra cash. Significant divisions remain on the payroll tax question in part because it funds the Social Security retirement program.
The payroll tax is paid by employers and employees each at a rate of 6.2 percent of wages, up to a maximum of $110,110. The holiday, enacted in 2010, reduced the rate by 2 percentage points on the portion paid by the worker.
Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen said Republicans were coming around on the tax-rate hikes on the wealthiest Americans and there was a good chance of resolving that soon. But the other things might have to wait, he said, mentioning the budget cuts and the payroll tax.
If not complete by Jan. 1, he said, "my belief is you would get it done very soon" after the New Year, noting that the government has some flexibility on withholding taxes that could limit the immediate hit to taxpayers while negotiations continued into 2013.
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