My conclusion is, the president really does intend to take us off the fiscal cliff because he sees political advantage in doing so. —Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas
WASHINGTON — Congress and the White House appear no closer to an agreement on the year-end budget crisis, although House Speaker John A. Boehner and President Barack Obama have opened lines of communication that could produce a deal later this month.
The president on Thursday enlisted a Virginia family to humanize his effort to preserve tax rates for low- and middle-income households while raising them on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. Republicans are fighting to keep the lower rates for everyone.
The Santana-Massenburg family of Falls Church, Va., would be snared if Washington failed to find agreement. All lower tax rates are set to expire Dec. 31, resulting in a $2,200 tax increase for average Americans.
"They're keeping it together, they're working hard," Obama said of the family. "For them to be burdened unnecessarily because Democrats and Republicans aren't coming together to solve this problem gives you a sense of the costs involved in very personal terms."
The president sat around the family's dining room table with Tiffany Santana, a high school English teacher, and her husband, Richard, who works at a Toyota dealership. They and their 6-year-old son share the spacious apartment with Tiffany's parents, Velma and Jimmie Massenburg, who work as a child-care provider and postal worker, respectively, to help pay the $2,000 monthly mortgage.
Because the family has two sets of working adults as income earners, they can expect to lose about $4,400 next year if the tax cuts, first enacted in the George W. Bush administration, expire.
Congress was wrapping up other business this week as negotiations produced little movement toward compromise on the looming fiscal cliff of tax hikes and across-the-board spending cuts that lawmakers originally mandated as incentive to find a better way to trim the budget.
"It's primarily a Boehner-Obama negotiation, but that doesn't appear to be going very well," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "My conclusion is, the president really does intend to take us off the fiscal cliff because he sees political advantage in doing so."
The president and his Democratic allies in Congress maintain that wealthier Americans should pay more, saying the country can no longer afford the estimated $900 billion cost of continuing the Bush-era tax rates for another decade.
Several influential Republicans have suggested the GOP should accept the president's offer to extend the tax rates for most Americans while the broader budget battle continues. The Democratic-controlled Senate has already passed a bill that would extend the lower rates on the first $250,000 earned for families and $200,000 for individuals.
Top Republicans are seeking steep cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security in exchange for producing some new tax revenue. And they are attempting to shift blame to Obama for steering the nation toward the fiscal cliff.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, sought to refocus attention on the nation's $16 trillion debt load, a once-powerful "tea party" issue.
Republicans intend to extract additional spending cuts in exchange for the administration's request to raise the nation's debt limit to cover its obligations. But Obama has said he will not negotiate over the issue as he did in 2011 and expects lawmakers to either extend the government's borrowing authority or give him the power to do so.
Republican Rep. James Lankford, a conservative freshman from Oklahoma, noted that the spending cuts the GOP wants are to pay for last year's increase in the debt ceiling.
"We're waiting for the White House at this point," he said. "We have to have as much or more cutting as we raise the debt ceiling. They've got to get this resolved."