WASHINGTON (AP) - In a test of divided government, President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner sought an elusive compromise Tuesday to prevent economy-damaging tax increases on the middle class at year's end, conferring by phone after a secretive exchange of proposals.
Details were sparse and evidence of significant progress scarcer still, although officials said the president had offered to reduce his initial demand for $1.6 trillion in higher tax revenue over a decade to $1.4 trillion.
There was no indication he was relenting on his demand - strongly opposed by most Republicans - that tax rates rise at upper incomes.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio walks to the House floor to deliver remarks about negotiations with President Barack Obama on the “fiscal cliff” Tuesday in Washington.
Boehner sounded unimpressed in remarks on the House floor at midday.
"The longer the White House slow-walks this process, the closer our economy gets to the fiscal cliff," he said, declaring that Obama had yet to identify specific cuts to government benefit programs as part of an agreement that also would raise federal tax revenue.
The Ohio Republican made his comments well before he and the president talked by phone about attempts to avert a "fiscal cliff," across-the-board tax increases and cuts in defense and domestic programs that economists say could send the economy into recession.
In rebuttal, the White House swiftly detailed what officials say are numerous proposals Obama has made to cut spending, including recommendations to cull $340 million from Medicare over a decade and an additional $250 billion from other government benefit programs.
The House Democrat leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, challenged Boehner to allow a vote on the president's proposal to extend most expiring tax cuts while letting them lapse at higher incomes.
She predicted it would gain "overwhelming approval," even in the GOP-led House.
Two weeks before the year-end holidays, time to find agreement is short, but not prohibitively so.
"I think it's going to be extremely difficult to get it done before Christmas but it could be done," said Senate Democrat leader Harry Reid.
Boehner's office took the step - unusual in secretive talks - of announcing that Republicans "sent the White House a counteroffer that would achieve tax and entitlement reform to solve our looming debt crisis and create more American jobs."
Both sides say they want a deal to prevent damage to the economy, but that stated commitment has been accompanied by a fierce battle to gain the political high ground in negotiations - and the occasional comment that one side or the other would be willing to let the deadline pass without a deal that lacks acceptable terms.
In an ABC interview, Obama did not reject a Republican call to raise the age of Medicare eligibility from 65 to 67, a proposal that many Democrats strongly oppose.
The proposal is "something that's been floated," Obama said, not mentioning that he had tacitly agreed to it in deficit-reduction talks with Boehner more than a year ago that ended in failure.
"When you look at the evidence, it's not clear that it actually saves a lot of money," he said. "But what I've said is, Let's look at every avenue, because what is true is we need to strengthen Social Security, we need to strengthen Medicare for future generations, the current path is not sustainable because we've got an aging population and health care costs are shooting up so quickly."
In his noontime remarks on the House floor, Boehner said, "Let's be honest. We're broke. The plan we offered is consistent with the president's call for a balanced approach."
"We're still waiting for the White House" to do the same, added the Ohio Republican.
GOP senators across the Capitol echoed his remarks.
"You have to ask the question, Is the president obsessed with raising taxes?" said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota.