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Cliff Talks Send Parties Back to Old Corners

Talks over how to avert deep spending cuts and large tax increases took a bad turn Thursday, as both sides complained about a lack of trust and Republicans said the White House’s negotiating stance is jeopardizing any good will that may exist between the parties.

Republicans said they were uncertain how to move forward after receiving a proposal from White House emissaries that GOP aides likened to a rehashing of President Barack Obama’s budget proposal. And they appeared stunned that the White House would not only ask for another stimulus measure but also request an end to Congress’ role in raising the debt ceiling.

The disconnect between the parties was obvious, with Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, saying “no substantive progress” had been made and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., saying at one point, “I don’t understand his brain,” referring to the speaker.

Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and White House chief congressional liaison Rob Nabors visited Capitol Hill to meet separately with the four top congressional leaders Thursday, but any progress the meetings might have produced was marred by mistrust.

Boehner was fuming that a Wednesday night phone call he had with the president leaked to the press, and he blamed the White House for breaking its pact to keep the call secret.

White House aides denied the leak came from the administration, but the damage was done.

Going forward, Boehner needs to know that discussions with the administration can remain private if need be, according to GOP leadership aides. Having too many details in the press could complicate his ability to sell any final deal to his unruly conference.

The leak, coupled with the fact that Obama is on a barnstorming tour to drum up public support for a tax hike on high-income earners, caused Boehner to publicly question the president’s seriousness about reaching a deal.

“Listen, this is not a game. Jobs are on the line, the American economy is on the line and this is the moment for adult leadership,” Boehner said.

A GOP leadership aide said Geithner’s appearance on the Hill amounted to little more than a “token gesture” from the administration, as House Republicans do not believe he will be the one negotiating the final deal.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., confirmed that feeling among Republicans, telling CQ Roll Call in an interview that, “I think it was a meeting just to show that there was a meeting.”

Adding to the drama was Geithner’s list of demands, which included $1.6 trillion in revenue and a request to give the president the power to raise the debt limit without Congress’ approval. To reach the revenue target, Geithner asked for $960 billion in immediate increases to the top tax rates and capital gains and dividends, an additional $600 billion in tax increases, a return to the 2009 level estate tax and a multiyear stimulus package starting with $50 billion in 2013, according to another GOP leadership aide.

McConnell appeared incredulous about Geithner’s proposal. He said the $1.6 trillion in revenue and the debt limit proposal constituted “highly irresponsible talk” and said the White House efforts Thursday were not what he “would consider … serious.”

“We have signaled on numerous occasions … that we’re willing to put more revenue on the table, we’re willing to take it from upper income people,” McConnell said, referring to the GOP revenue offer in 2011’s failed supercommittee debate.

McConnell emphasized that the GOP wants to see a good faith effort from Democrats on entitlements. This has been an emerging line of attack from Republicans, who have been on the defensive since the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction’s failure to reach agreement was pinned to revenue and not reforms of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Earlier in the day, Reid was asked about the lack of conversation on entitlements — and Boehner’s remarks that the ball was in Democrats’ court to offer up a plan — to which the majority leader responded that he didn’t understand the speaker’s “brain.”

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., acknowledged that the relationship between Boehner and Obama right now is “not good.”

Boehner, he said, is “in a corner. The president has basically said to him, OK, we told you what we want, now produce what you want.”

Still, talk of tension between the White House and the House is nothing new. Even Democrats have at times complained that the administration treats them with a cool distance.

Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., who will lead the Republican Policy Committee in the 113th Congress, said there has long been a feeling among Republicans that the White House is not trustworthy.

“There’s a trust issue with the House,” Lankford said. “This White House has been very distant from the legislative branch and has tried to do everything beyond arm’s length. It works a lot better if we’re actually developing relationships and I haven’t seen that.”

Of course, Democrats have countered that the relationship was also damaged when the House voted to go back on 2011’s spending cap agreement and institute a lower spending limit for fiscal 2013.

Still, a senior White House official downplayed the tensions, reinforcing Obama’s position that Republicans should agree to allow taxes to increase on those making more than $250,000 annually before progress can be made.

“It’s sort of up to them. … The easiest place to start, the thing we all agree on, is making sure middle-class families don’t face a tax increase next year,” the official said. “This stuff happens, but at the end of the day, working across the aisle to do important things is good for the country. It’s what the American people are looking for, it’s what the American people want and it’s what the president wants.”

Similarly, Nabors emerged from his meeting with McConnell saying, “Things are going fine.”

Alan K. Ota and Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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