WASHINGTON - The White House and a key congressional Democrat hinted at fresh concessions on taxes and cuts to Medicare and other government benefit programs Wednesday as bargaining with Republicans lurched ahead to avoid the year-end "fiscal cliff" that threatens to send the economy into a tailspin.
Increasing numbers of rank-and-file Republicans also said they were ready to give ground, a boost for House Speaker John Boehner and other party leaders who say they will agree to higher tax revenues as part of a deal if it also curbs benefit programs as a way to rein in federal deficits.
"I'll go anywhere and I'll do whatever it takes to get this done," President Barack Obama said as he sought to build pressure on Republicans to accept his terms - a swift renewal of expiring tax cuts for all but the highest income earners. "It's too important for Washington to screw this up," he declared.
For all the talk, there was no sign of tangible progress on an issue that marks a first test for divided government since elections that assured Obama a second term in the White House while renewing Republican control in the House.
"It's time for the president and Democrats to get serious about the spending problem that our country has," Boehner said at a news conference in the Capitol. He, like Obama, expressed optimism that a deal could be reached.
At the same time, he publicly disagreed with one GOP lawmaker, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who said he was ready to go along with Obama's plan to renew most but not all of the expiring income tax cuts. "It'll hurt the economy" to raise rates for anyone, said Boehner.
Separately, at a closed-door meeting with the rank and file, the speaker told fellow Republicans they are on solid political ground in refusing to let tax rates rise. He circulated polling data showing the public favors closing loopholes to raise revenue far more than it supports raising rates on incomes over $250,000.
There were no face-to-face talks between the administration and lawmakers during the day.
A group of corporate CEOs pushing for a deal met separately with top Democratic and Republican leaders in the House, joined by Erskine Bowles, who was co-chairman of a deficit commission Obama appointed earlier in his term.
Speaking to reporters before a session with business leaders, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said the bargaining ought to begin where deficit talks between Obama and Boehner broke down 18 months ago "and go from there to reach an agreement."