WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is ready to entertain Republican proposals for spending cuts, but GOP lawmakers must first commit to higher tax rates on the rich and specify what additional spending cuts they want in a deal to avoid the looming "fiscal cliff," Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said.
"The ball really is with them now," Geithner, one of the president's chief negotiators with Capitol Hill, said during appearances on five Sunday talk shows. He acknowledged that Republicans are "having a tough time trying to figure out what they can do, what they can get support from their members for." The White House "might need to give them a little more time to figure out where they go next."
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Geithner presented congressional leaders Thursday with Obama's postelection blueprint for averting the combination of hundreds of billions in tax increases and spending cuts that will take effect beginning in January if Washington doesn't act to stop it.
But House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, dismissed the plan as "not serious," merely a Democratic wish list that couldn't pass his chamber.
As outlined by administration officials, the plan calls for nearly $1.6 trillion in new tax revenue over the next decade, while making $600 billion in spending cuts, including $350 billion from Medicare and other health programs. But it also contains $200 billion in new spending on jobless benefits, public works and aid for struggling homeowners -- and would make it virtually impossible for Congress to block Obama's ability to raise the debt ceiling.
"I was just flabbergasted," Boehner said, describing his meeting with Geithner. "I looked at him and I said, 'You can't be serious?" The speaker, noting the short time between the Nov. 6 election and the new year, said time has been lost so far "with this nonsense."
With the George W. Bush-era tax cuts expiring and across-the-board spending cuts hitting in under a month, Boehner said, "I would say we're nowhere, period." He said "there's clearly a chance" of going over the cliff.
But Geithner, also in interviews that were taped Friday, offered a somewhat rosier view. "I think we're far apart still, but I think we're moving closer together," he said.
He called the back-and-forth "normal political theater," voicing confidence a bargain can be struck in time, and said all that's blocking it is GOP acceptance of higher tax rates on the wealthy.
"It's welcome that they're recognizing that revenues are going to have to go up. But they haven't told us anything about how far rates should go up ... (and) who should pay higher taxes?" Geithner said.
He said so far, GOP proposals demonstrate "political math, not real math."
Republican leaders have said they accept higher tax revenue overall, but only through what they call tax reform -- closing loopholes and limiting deductions -- and only coupled with tough measures to curb the explosive growth of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
But Geithner insisted that there's "no path to an agreement (without) Republicans acknowledging that rates have to go up for the wealthiest Americans." He also said the administration would only discuss changes to Social Security "in a separate process," not in talks on the fiscal cliff.
As to spending, Geithner said if Republicans don't think Obama's cutting enough spending, they should make a counter-proposal. "They might want to do some different things. But they have to tell us what those things are," he said.
Republicans have also rejected Obama's debt ceiling proposal. Geithner noted it was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who first suggested it, as a temporary measure in the summer 2011 deficit deal. The administration would make it permanent. "It was a very smart way by a senator with impeccable Republican credentials to ... lift this ... periodic threat of default," Geithner said. "And that's an essential thing for us."
Geithner voiced sympathy for Republicans leaders, saying they're caught between the voters' endorsement of higher taxes on the rich and a House GOP caucus that thinks all tax increases are job-killers.
"They really are in a difficult position," he said. "And they're going to have to figure out their politics of what they do next."
In the past week, Obama has held a series of campaign-style appearances -- including one in a swing district in Pennsylvania -- urging lawmakers to accept a Senate-passed measure extending tax cuts for all but the top 2 percent of wage-earners. He'll continue the effort when he meets with governors on Tuesday and speaks to the Business Roundtable on Wednesday.
GOP leaders contend letting top-end tax cuts run out would hit small businesses and cost jobs.
Still, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Republicans will "hold our nose and raise some revenues" if the result is a deal that reins in runaway debt. But he said the onus is on Obama to knuckle down to talks.
"I'm ready for the president to get off the campaign trail, and get in the White House and get a result," Alexander told reporters in Nashville on Saturday. "Right now he's got the presidential limousine headed toward the fiscal cliff with his foot on the accelerator."
Geithner appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation," NBC's "Meet the Press," CNN's "State of the Union," ABC's "This Week," and "Fox News Sunday." Boehner was on Fox, too.