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House Speaker John Boehner softens tone on 'fiscal cliff'

The Republican offers to work with the White House, but he sticks with tax-cut proposals that have alienated Democrats.

November 07, 2012|By Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau
  • House Speaker John A. Boehner said at the Capitol, "Let's rise above the dysfunction and do the right thing together for our country in a bipartisan way."
House Speaker John A. Boehner said at the Capitol, "Let's rise… (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated…)

WASHINGTON — House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) made an opening offer Wednesday to avert an impending fiscal showdown, softening his party's confrontational tone one day after its electoral losses. But he stood by the GOP's core no-new-taxes pledge that has prevented a deal with the White House.

The Republican shunned the bombastic approach favored by the GOP's tea party wing and sought to portray his House majority as ready to work with President Obama when Congress returns for what is expected to be an intense lame-duck session.

Lawmakers and the White House are racing to strike a year-end deal that would prevent automatic tax increases and spending cuts, the so-called fiscal cliff that economists warn could throw the economy into another recession.

"Let's rise above the dysfunction and do the right thing together for our country in a bipartisan way," Boehner said at the Capitol.

Democrats welcomed the conciliatory overture but panned its substance, particularly the tax-cut proposals echoing those Mitt Romney advocated in his failed presidential bid. Nonpartisan experts have said the proposals do not add up.

"The election's over," and Americans are tired of gridlock, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. "They want a balanced approach to everything, but especially the situation we have dealing with this huge deficit, and taxes."

As the White House and congressional leaders took stock of the postelection landscape, Obama called congressional leaders of both parties for what will likely be the first of many private conversations about the daunting fiscal challenge awaiting them.

"The president said he believed that the American people sent a message in yesterday's election that leaders in both parties need to put aside their partisan interests and work with common purpose to put the interests of the American people and the American economy first," the White House said in a statement.

Democrats want Obama to swiftly unveil a proposal to resolve the fiscal mess, believing his victory provides a mandate to steer negotiations.

They expect him to make the case to the American public, which polls have shown largely prefers the Democratic approach: a balance of tax increases on wealthier households and spending reductions to begin addressing budget shortfalls. By getting out front on the issue, Boehner not only opened the door for the president but also challenged him to make the next move.

Boehner suggested a stopgap measure that would buy time for negotiations to continue in 2013 on a broader deal to reform the tax code and entitlement spending, the so-called grand bargain that has eluded leaders.

Boehner's proposal would extend current tax rates for another year for all Americans, including the well-to-do. The rates established during the George W. Bush administration are set to expire Dec. 31. The GOP has insisted they be extended across the board, while Obama has vowed to veto any proposal that preserves the lower rates on income above $250,000 for couples and $200,000 for singles.

The rates had been due to expire in 2010 but were extended in a lame-duck session two years ago. Obama wants the top income tax rate to rise from 35% to 39.6%, the rate in effect during President Clinton's term.

Boehner also proposed temporarily halting automatic budget cuts across military and domestic programs that both sides accepted last year when they agreed to raise the debt ceiling (the amount the nation can borrow to cover existing obligations) but now want to undo.

The speaker's proposal would buy time while negotiations continue on cleaning up the tax code; changing federal spending on Medicare, Medicaid and other entitlements; and reducing overall spending.

But the substance of Boehner's proposed tax overhaul relies on economic growth to produce revenue, as Romney's did.

"There is no mandate for raising tax rates on the American people," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). "There is a mandate for avoiding the fiscal cliff."

At least one Republican, outgoing Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, urged her party to the negotiating table.

"I also implore my fellow Republicans to take the lead in setting the tone for a results-oriented lame-duck session by reaching across the political aisle," she said.

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

Kathleen Hennessey contributed to this report.

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