WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner on Friday wouldn’t rule out higher income-tax rates as part of an agreement to avert the coming “fiscal cliff,” but he also said no such movement was possible unless President Barack Obama showed more interest in compromising.
The Ohio Republican was asked at a news conference whether he could accept higher rates, perhaps 37 percent, and "protect small business at the same time."
"There are a lot of things that are possible to put the revenue that the president seeks on the table,” he said.
Boehner reiterated later that he still opposes higher tax rates, but his initial comments are significant, because they suggest that higher rates might be part of a deal. The comments also reflect the murky nature of such negotiations, and how sending signals can be oblique, but significant.
Bush-era tax cuts expire at the end of the year, and $109 billion in automatic spending cuts will take effect Jan. 2 unless lawmakers act.
Obama campaigned on a pledge to raise taxes on the wealthy but to keep Bush-era rates intact for individuals who make less than $200,000 a year and families earning less than $250,000.
He’s said over and over since the election that other rates must go up. Currently, the top rates are 33 and 35 percent; they’re slated to rise to 36 and 39.6 percent next year. Obama has suggested that he could accept a number in between, and Capitol talk has centered on 37 percent.
Boehner was hardly optimistic Friday. “None of it is going to be possible if the president insists on his position, insists on ‘my way or the highway,’ ” he said.
Republicans in the House of Representatives offered a deficit-reduction package Monday but haven’t gotten a White House counteroffer. It included $800 billion in new revenue, with no specifics.
Some veteran Republican lawmakers suggested that they could accept higher rates, notably Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who’s considered close to Boehner, and Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who’s regarded as one of the Senate’s most outspoken conservatives.
Obama and Boehner spoke earlier this week, and Boehner called the conversation “pleasant, but just more of the same.”
So, Boehner said Friday, “There’s no progress to report,” adding, "The White House has wasted another week.”
At the White House, officials declined to comment, while the administration continued its public push for middle-class tax breaks.
Vice President Joe Biden had lunch at the Metro 29 Diner in Arlington, Va., with a half-dozen handpicked Americans whose income taxes would rise if a deal isn’t reached by the end of the month.
Biden said it would take "15 minutes" for a bill to get done if Boehner agreed to let taxes on the wealthy go up. He said while the administration preferred having the rates go up to Clinton-era levels it was willing to negotiate with Republicans.
Attendees include a naturalized citizen from Colombia whose wife recently lost her job, a small-business owner whose children have developmental disabilities and a college senior.
Anne Marie Munos of Falls Church, Va., who cares for three seniors, was selected for the lunch after she responded on the White House website.
“I can’t see how we can afford to pay more taxes,’’ she wrote. "We certainly won’t be able to boost the economy because our buying power will suffer even more than it already has.”
Obama is trying to pressure Congress through a public relations blitz while leaving top aides to work out a compromise. Since beginning the #My2K campaign a week ago, more than 100,000 stories have been shared on WhiteHouse.gov and 250,000 tweeted with the hashtag #My2k.