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Fiscal Cliff Negotiations Appear to Be Inching Forward

Could no news be good news when it comes to talks between the White House and Boehner?

The adage in Washington is that if nobody is talking about what they’re really talking about, that’s a good sign for getting a deal.

In what may be just such a positive sign, President Barack Obama, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and their aides on Thursday seemed to be zipping their lips on the behind-the-scenes fiscal cliff talks after a private Wednesday phone call between the two men. Of course, both sides also continued their public relations fight over debt and taxes.

“Lines of communication are open,” one House GOP leadership aide said.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney likewise declined to give details on the call or the ongoing discussions, beyond saying that the administration still believes that there is time to reach a fiscal cliff deal — provided Republicans agree that higher tax rates on the wealthy have to be part of it.

That’s something that in recent days more Republicans on both sides of the Capitol have suddenly become more flexible on as they face the potential of rates going up on everyone come Jan. 1 . Boehner, however, has kept to his bottom line of preventing a rate increase in favor of trimming deductions.

Before the call, Republicans had become increasingly vocal in their complaints that the White House simply wasn’t engaging in talks at all. Instead, they felt the president was waiting for the political heat to ramp up on the GOP — something that Democrats privately acknowledged to be the case.

With polls backing the president over the GOP on the cliff, Democrats don’t think Republicans can sustain opposition to raising taxes on the wealthy. “Send us a memo on how you want to cave,” one Senate Democratic leadership aide suggested.

That being said, the White House and top Democrats continued to suggest Thursday their own flexibility on both tax rates as well as entitlement reforms. Carney reiterated to reporters Thursday that Obama was willing to go beyond the $600 billion in entitlement savings that he has already proposed in order to get a deal. The day before, Obama predicted the cuts part of the package could be reached in a mere week after the tax issue is dealt with.

The bottom line for the White House and Democrats is revenue, not rates — not the $800 billion figure offered by Republicans, but something closer to the $1.6 trillion sought by Obama.

It’s worth noting that the White House had sought a $1.2 trillion revenue increase at one point in 2011 — exactly halfway between the two offers now on the table.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi suggested raising the rate on top earners to 39.6 percent could be negotiable, but the total revenue coming from the wealthy must still be achieved. “It’s about the money,” the California Democrat said, echoing Obama’s comments earlier this week.

Still, both sides continued the showmanship Thursday, with the debt ceiling again taking center stage. The debt limit is a side argument to the larger talks on extending Bush-era tax rates and averting automatic, across-the-board spending cuts. But it’s a concession the White House is demanding to prevent serial manufactured crises in which the GOP uses the threat of a government default to demand spending cuts.

Senate Democrats appeared to surprise Republicans Thursday by closing ranks behind Obama’s proposal to give the president unprecedented authority to raise the debt ceiling with only limited congressional power to block him.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., brought Obama’s proposal to the floor and said he was prepared to hold a vote. But he subsequently objected when Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., sought to pass it by a simple majority. A Senate Democratic aide said he was “very confident” that Democrats had the 51 votes needed to pass the bill, but McConnell quickly tried to set a 60-vote, filibuster-proof threshold for passage of the measure before an agreement to vote was solidified.

“I would hope that we can work together here and get a vote on it and give his members a chance to express themselves as to whether or not they think that’s a good way forward for our country, to give this president or any other president unlimited authority to borrow as much as he wants at any time he wants from the Chinese or anybody else,” McConnell said Thursday morning, before he blocked Reid’s counteroffer.

After, Democrats chided McConnell for the reversal. “This may be a moment in Senate history, when a senator made a proposal and when given an opportunity for a vote on that proposal filibustered his own proposal,” said Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill.

Senate Democrats expect to bring the measure up repeatedly until the Republicans allow a majority vote, the senior aide said.

Carney shot down the idea pitched by some senior Democrats that Obama should simply raise the debt limit on his own through the 14th Amendment, which says the debt of the United States shall not be questioned. “This administration does not believe that the 14th Amendment gives the president the power to ignore the debt ceiling. Period,” Carney said.

Ben Weyl and Meredith Shiner contributed to this report.

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