Republicans, meanwhile, insisted that it is up to President Obama to offer a plan to restrain the cost of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — the government’s biggest and fastest-growing programs — in exchange for GOP concessions on taxes.
As the White House announced that it will dispatch Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and Rob Nabors, its top congressional negotiator, to Capitol Hill on Thursday for the first high-level meetings in nearly two weeks, aides to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) encouraged them to arrive with a detailed proposal to rein in health-care and retirement spending.
“We accepted this meeting with the expectation that the White House team will bring a specific plan for real spending cuts — because spending cuts that Washington Democrats will accept is what is missing from the balanced approach that the president says he wants,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that Obama has already offered a plan to slice $340 billion from federal health programs, in part by charging wealthy seniors more for Medicare, and that he is open to additional proposals for health-care savings.
But top Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), have resisted changes to entitlement programs as part of the fiscal-cliff negotiations. With few signs of progress and barely four weeks remaining until more than $500 billion in automatic tax increases and spending cuts are set to take effect, a sense of gloom was descending over the Capitol.
Erskine Bowles, a former Democratic White House chief of staff who has returned to Washington this week to act as an informal envoy between Republicans and the White House, said he sees only a one in three chance of an agreement before the fiscal cliff hits in January — in part because of Democratic recalcitrance over entitlement savings.
“Am I an optimist? No, but I am hopeful,” Bowles told reporters after emerging from a meeting at the Capitol with Boehner and other House Republican leaders.
“I think it’s at most a one-third probability we’ll get something done before the end” of the year, he said earlier at a breakfast with reporters hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “There has been no serious discussion yet about entitlement reform.”
Bowles met Tuesday with Obama and other top administration officials, who told him that they are willing to show “flexibility” on another key difference between the two sides: where to set tax rates for the wealthy in 2013.