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The bargaining picture painted by House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama seemed a bit rosier earlier this month.

Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

Disconnect grows over benefit cuts

  • Article by: ANDREW TAYLOR
  • Associated Press
  • November 27, 2012 - 11:11 PM

WASHINGTON - Republicans' newfound willingness to consider tax increases to avert the "fiscal cliff" comes with a significant caveat: larger cuts than Democrats seem willing to consider to benefit programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and President Obama's health care overhaul.

The disconnect on benefit programs, coupled with an impasse between Republicans and the White House over raising tax rates on upper-bracket earners, paints a bleak picture as the clock ticks toward a year-end fiscal debacle of automatic tax increases and harsh cuts to the Pentagon and domestic programs.

Democrats emboldened by the election are moving in the opposite direction from the GOP on curbing spending, refusing to look at cuts that were on the bargaining table just last year. Those include any changes to Social Security, even though Obama was willing back then to consider cuts in future benefits through lower cost-of-living increases. Obama also considered raising the eligibility age for Medicare, an idea that most Democrats oppose.

"I haven't seen any suggestions on what they're going to do on spending," a frustrated Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said on Tuesday. "There's a certain cockiness that I've seen that is really astounding to me since we're basically in the same position we were before."

Well, says Obama's most powerful ally on Capitol Hill, the Democrats are willing to tackle spending on entitlement programs if Republicans agree to raise income tax rates on the wealthiest Americans -- a nonstarter with the GOP still in control of the House. "We hope that they can agree to the tax revenue that we're talking about, and that is rate increases, and as the president's said on a number of occasions, we'll be happy to deal with entitlements," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on Tuesday.

At the White House, Obama met with more than a dozen small-business owners. Participants described the hour-long meeting as a listening session for Obama, with the business owners urging him to reach an agreement.

"They had one message for the president, which is they need certainty. Please get this deal done as soon as possible," said Karen Mills, the head of the Small Business Administration.

Obama hits the road on Friday, visiting a Pennsylvania toy factory and broadcasting his case to extend current tax rates for all but those families making more than $250,000 a year.

Private White House negotiations with top aides to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and others are cloaked in secrecy, with no evidence of headway. "There's been little progress with the Republicans, which is a disappointment to me," Reid, a key negotiator, told reporters on Tuesday. "They talked some happy talk about doing revenues, but we only have a couple weeks to get something done."

Republicans say it's Obama and his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill who are holding back, and they point to a balance of power in official Washington that is little changed by the president's re-election.

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