Republicans pulled out of debt-reduction talks led by Vice President Joe Biden with a flourish on Thursday, blaming Democrats for demanding tax increases as part of a deal rather than accepting more than $1 trillion in cuts to health care for the elderly and other government programs.
"Let me be clear: Tax hikes are off the table," said the Republican leader of the House, Speaker John Boehner.
Republicans long ago branded themselves as the party of lower taxes, while Democrats, looking to the 2012 elections, are already campaigning hard against a new Republican plan to turn government-paid health care for the elderly into a system of private insurance coverage.
Boehner spoke shortly after the House Republican second-in-command, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, announced he would not attend a planned negotiating session and said it is "time for President Obama to speak clearly and resolve the tax issue."
White House spokesman Jay Carney quickly obliged, while announcing that the talks were "in abeyance." He said Obama supports a "balanced approach" to debt reduction.
"I would point that the president supports a balanced approach," Carney said. "He does not support an approach that provides for a $200,000 tax cut for millionaires and billionaires paid for by a $6,000 a year hike in expenses and costs for seniors."
Numerous officials have said in recent days that Obama and Boehner would soon take a more public role in the negotiations, as time grows short for confronting politically vexing questions over taxes and benefit programs.
As a result, it appeared that the day's events marked an eruption of political maneuvering rather than a blow-up that would jeopardize the success of negotiations.
In general, the negotiations are aimed at producing legislation to cut future deficits while simultaneously lifting the $14.3 trillion limit on Treasury borrowing.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has said that without an increase in the debt limit by Aug. 2, the United States faces a first-ever default, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the economy.
Carney told reporters that Boehner had met unannounced with Obama at the White House Wednesday evening. It was the first known encounter between the two men since their widely publicized round of golf last weekend.
Nor was it likely Democrats were taken by surprise by the day's events, since Cantor informed Biden of his plans before making any public announcement.
Adding to the intrigue, one Republican leadership aide said Cantor did not inform Boehner of his plan to withdraw from the talks until shortly before he did so. Nor was Cantor aware of Boehner's trip to the White House the evening before, this aide said.
For his part, Cantor said the secretive Biden-led talks had "established a blueprint" for agreement on significant cuts in spending, but had reached an impasse because of the Democratic demand for taxes.
Sen. Jon Kyl, the other Republican participant, also said he would not attend the scheduled session, and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell spoke in unusually biting terms of Democratic demands for new government spending as part of a debt-reduction deal.
While accepting a need to raise the debt limit, Boehner has said that deficit cuts must exceed the size of any increase in borrowing authority — a position that neither Obama nor any other Democrat has challenged.
The Congressional Budget Office warned on Wednesday that unless steps are taken to rein in deficits, the country risks a "sudden fiscal crisis," with investors losing faith in the U.S. government's ability to manage its fiscal affairs.