WASHINGTON -- The first cracks are developing among Republicans over whether to accept a quick deal with President Barack Obama on allowing the top two income tax rates to expire, even as an administration official said the White House was stepping up behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Conservative Oklahoma GOP Rep. Tom Cole told GOP colleagues in a private meeting Tuesday that it's better to make sure that tax cuts for the 98 percent of taxpayers who make less than $200,000 or $250,000 a year are extended than to battle it out with Obama and risk increasing taxes on everyone.
Cole's remarks are noteworthy because he's a longtime GOP loyalist and a confidant of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. They were made in a meeting of the House GOP Republican whip team, which is a sounding board for GOP leaders.
"If we don't believe taxes should go up on anybody, why can't we accept a deal that takes 98 percent out and still leaves us free to fight on the other grounds," Cole said in an interview on Wednesday. "I'm not for using the American people for leverage or as a hostage."
Meanwhile, an administration official speaking on grounds of anonymity told The Associated Press that two of Obama's top negotiators on the fiscal issues will meet separately Thursday with leading lawmakers.
The sessions are seen as an important step in determining how the government will avoid a year-end package of tax increases and spending cuts that could throw the economy into recession.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and White House legislative chief Rob Nabors will meet with House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, said the official, who said he could not speak on the record because the meetings had not yet been publicly announced.
Some Republicans on the Hill have been worried that the GOP would lose a bargaining advantage by separating tax cuts for the highest earners from everyone else, but Cole said he believes the reverse is true. "I think we have the winning argument," he said. "Most Americans intuitively understand that raising taxes on small business is costing them jobs."
Cole's comments drew a rebuke from Boehner, who is standing firm against Obama's demand that tax rates go up for top earners.
"He's a wonderful friend of mine and a great supporter of mine, but raising taxes on the so-called top 2 percent -- half of those taxpayers are small business owners," Boehner said. "You're not going to grow the economy if you raise the top two rates. It'll hurt small business. It'll hurt our economy."
Reaction was mixed to his idea at a Wednesday morning meeting of House Republicans, Cole said. Conservative Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who said he opposed Cole's idea, said he believed a majority of House Republicans also opposed it.
Cole said he expects to support whatever deficit-cutting deal Boehner is eventually able to negotiate with the White House as the two sides wrangle over how to avoid the "fiscal cliff" mix of tax increases and spending cuts that will occur automatically in January unless lawmakers avert them.
"This is a tactical argument, this is not a theological argument," Cole said. "We don't disagree on what we're trying to do."
Cole's comments were first reported by Politico.
There has been little evident progress between Obama and Boehner in talks aimed at striking a deal to avoid the fiscal train wreck. Republicans are worried that Democrats seem to be taking a harder line on cutting popular benefit programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
"We have not seen any good faith effort on the part of this administration to talk about the real problem that we're trying to fix," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., told reporters.
But House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday that the starting point for talks should be a framework discussed by Obama and Boehner in the summer of 2011. Then, Democrats were willing to consider curbing the inflation adjustment for Social Security and lifting the eligibility age for Medicare -- ideas that other top Democrats have taken off the table.
"We can all be there and start with that and go from there to reach an agreement," Pelosi said.
Pelosi made her remarks as she met with prominent business executives and Erskine Bowles, the chairman of Obama's 2010 deficit commission. Bowles and the executives also met with House GOP leaders.
Asked if he sensed Democrats could be more flexible on curbing so-called entitlement programs like Medicare, Bowles said: "I think we will see give in all areas if we're going to get a deal done. If not, we're going to go over this cliff, and I think everybody realizes that would be a disaster."
Obama said Wednesday he still believes that members of both parties can reach a framework agreement on a debt-cutting deal before Christmas.
He made a public statement, joined by about a dozen middle-class Americans who have raised concerns about their taxes going up at the end of the year. He said lawmakers face important deadlines in the coming weeks but the voices of the American people need to be a part of the debate.
The president said that officials need to "approach this problem with the middle-class in mind."
Obama could be in position to blame Republicans if an impasse results in the government going over the so-called fiscal cliff, an economy-rattling set of automatic spending cuts and tax increases from the expiration of longstanding tax cuts made in 2001 and 2003 during the Bush administration.
Democrats already are portraying GOP lawmakers as hostage-takers willing to let tax rates rise on everyone if lower Bush-era tax rates are not extended for the top 2 percent to 3 percent of earners -- those with incomes above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for joint filers.
"Right now, as we speak, Congress can pass a law that would prevent a tax hike on the first $250,000 of everybody's income. Everybody's," Obama said. "And that means that 98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small businesses wouldn't see their income taxes go up by a single dime."