WASHINGTON (AP) - Fiscal cliff talks at a partisan standoff, President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner swapped barbed political charges on Wednesday yet carefully left room for further negotiations on an elusive deal to head off year-end tax increases and spending cuts that threaten the national economy.
Republicans should "peel off the war paint" and take the deal he's offering, Obama said sharply at the White House - even as he has refused to move far from his own party's line on higher taxes.
Obama said he had won re-election with a call for higher taxes on those he calls "the wealthy," then he said pointedly that the nation aches for conciliation, not a contest of ideologies, after last week's mass murder at a Connecticut elementary school.
President Barack Obama speaks about negotiations on the “fiscal cliff” Wednesday at the White House.
But he drew a quick retort from Boehner when the White House threatened to veto a fallback bill drafted by House Republicans that would prevent tax increases for all but million-dollar earners.
The president will bear responsibility for "the largest tax increase in history" if he makes good on that threat, the Ohio Republican pointed out.
In fact, it's unlikely the legislation will get that far as divided government careens into the final few days of a struggle that affects the pocketbooks of millions and blends lasting policy differences with deep political mistrust.
Boehner expressed confidence the Republicans' narrow "Plan B" bill would clear the House on Thursday despite opposition from some anti-tax dissidents, but a cold reception awaits in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
As for a broader agreement, officials said there had been little if any progress toward closing the gap between the two sides in the past two days, even though aides to the president and Boehner have remained in contact.
On paper, the two sides are relatively close to an agreement on major issues, each having offered concessions in an intensive round of talks that began late last week.
But political considerations are substantial.
After two decades of resolutely opposing any tax increases, Boehner is seeking votes from fellow Republicans for legislation that tacitly lets rates rise on million-dollar income tax filers. Similarly, despite vehement protests that the looming across-the-board spending cuts would seriously affect the Pentagon, the leadership's fallback bill does nothing to blunt or eliminate the reductions scheduled to begin on Jan. 1.
Reps. Peter DeFazio of Oregon and Jim McDermott of Washington, both veteran liberals, announced their opposition to a provision that Obama is backing to slow the growth of cost-of-living benefits for Social Security and other benefit programs.
At the White House, Obama repeated that he is ready to agree to spending cuts that may cause distress among some fellow Democrats, but he saved his sharpest words for Republicans.
"Goodness, if this past week has done anything, it should just give us some perspective," he said in a reference to the shootings of school children in Connecticut.
Yet even as he implored Republicans to "take the deal," he made it clear he's open to more bargaining.
Asked whether he might be flexible on the level at which tax rates should rise, he said he wasn't going to bargain in public.