WASHINGTON – One of President Barack Obama's Senate allies said Thursday that an increase in the Medicare eligibility age is "no longer one of the items being considered by the White House" in negotiations with top Republicans on avoiding the so-called fiscal cliff.
Obama's fellow Illinois Democrat, Sen. Dick Durbin, however, told reporters that he did not get the information directly from the president or the White House. But he is regularly apprised of the status of negotiations.
Increasing the eligibility age is a key demand by Republicans seeking cost curbs in popular benefit programs in exchange for higher tax revenues.
Durbin's remarks came as a frustrated House Speaker John Boehner again accused President Barack Obama of dragging out negotiations on any agreement to avoid a "fiscal cliff" of wide-ranging tax increases and spending cuts that will automatically be triggered in less than three weeks. The two sides appear far apart, and Boehner is scheduled to return home to Ohio on Friday, his office confirmed, though he remains available for negotiations by phone.
"Unfortunately, the White House is so unserious about cutting spending that it appears willing to slow-walk any agreement and walk our economy right up to the fiscal cliff," Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters Thursday. "And doing that puts jobs in our country in danger."
Durbin's comments on the Medicare eligibility age were surprising, since top Senate Democrats like Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, have been careful to not preclude the possibility of agreeing to such an increase — perhaps as a late-stage concession in a potential deal between Obama and Boehner.
"I was told it's not on the table from the White House," Durbin said. "Now that remains to be seen."
At a news conference, Reid again called on House Republicans to allow a vote on renewing Bush-era tax cuts for the 98 percent of taxpayers whose incomes are below $250,000. Obama vows to force rates on family income exceeding $250,000 from a top rate of 35 percent to the Clinton-era rate of 39.6 percent. He said the alternative is to allow tax cuts for everyone to expire.
"At some point, reality should set in," Reid said.
Reid cited comments by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to Politico.com, in which the incoming No. 2 Senate Republican said, "I believe we're going to pass the $250,000 and below sooner or later, and we really don't have much leverage" because those rates are going to expire anyway on Dec. 31.
On Thursday, Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican and leading conservative figure, predicted that Obama would prevail in the fight over taxes.
A leading conservative who's resigning from the Senate is predicting that President Barack Obama will win the battle over raising taxes.
"He's going to get his wish. I believe we're going to be raising taxes, and not just on the top earners," DeMint, who is leaving the Senate to become president of the Heritage Institution think tank, said in an appearance on "CBS This Morning."
DeMint said a tax increase would amount to a "political trophy" for Obama but said it would be bad for the country.
Boehner said he would reject White House demands that as part of a deal, Congress agree to give up much of its ability to block increases in the government's ability to borrow money. The Treasury is expected to run out of its power to borrow more money early next year — a situation that congressional Republicans successfully used last year to demand spending cuts from Obama.
"Congress is never going to give up our ability to control the purse," Boehner said. "And the fact is that the debt limit ought to be used to bring fiscal sanity to Washington, D.C."
Obama planned to make his case on the fiscal cliff in interviews Thursday afternoon with four local television stations in Philadelphia, Miami, Minneapolis and Sacramento, Calif. The TV markets reach viewers in congressional districts represented by Republican House members but won by Obama in last month's election.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama was "interested in communicating to Americans in every corner of the country about his commitment to work in bipartisan fashion with Congress to ensure that income taxes don't go up on middle class families at the end of the year."
Republicans still aren't budging on Obama's demands for higher tax rates on upper bracket earners, despite the president's convincing election victory and opinion polls showing support for the idea.
Democrats in turn are now resisting steps, such as raising the eligibility age for Medicare, that they were willing to consider just a year and a half ago, when Boehner was in a better tactical position.
Neither side has given much ground, and Boehner's exchange of proposals with Obama seemed to generate hard feelings more than progress. The White House has slightly reduced its demands on taxes — from $1.6 trillion over a decade to $1.4 trillion — but isn't yielding on demands that rates rise for wealthier earners.
Boehner responded with an offer very much like one he gave the White House more than a week ago that proposed $800 billion in new revenue, half of Obama's demand. Boehner is also pressing for an increase in the Medicare eligibility age and a stingier cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security recipients.
There is increasing concern about a Dec. 31 deadline to stop the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts and the start of across-the-board spending cuts that are the result of Washington's failure to complete a deficit-reduction deal last year. Even if an agreement can be reached, the halting pace of negotiations is jeopardizing chances that it could be written into proper legislative form and passed through both House and Senate before the new Congress convenes on Jan. 3.
"I do have an increasing concern that the speaker ... is trying to string this out until Jan. 3 because that's when he would be re-elected as speaker," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. "And I think he's nervous that if he can't get a majority of his House Republican members to support a reasonable agreement that that could put his speakership election in jeopardy. And so that might cause him to try and string these talks" along.
Republicans say it's Democrats who are dragging out the talks.
"In the past 48 hours, the president has not been negotiating in good faith in my opinion," said Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, who said he was increasingly pessimistic that a deal could be reached.