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US leaders bicker as fiscal cliff looms

Partisan bickering has trumped bargaining as Democrats and Republicans vie for the political high ground in talks to avoid year-end tax increases and spending cuts.

"No substantive progress has been made between the White House and the House (of Representatives)" over the past two weeks toward averting the "fiscal cliff", House Speaker John Boehner declared on Thursday after a private meeting with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner in the Capitol.

"Unfortunately, many Democrats continue to rule out sensible spending cuts that must be part of any significant agreement that will reduce our deficit."

Democrats said any holdup was the fault of Republicans, who are baulking at President Barack Obama's plan to raise tax rates on incomes higher than $US200,000 ($A192,500) for individuals and $US250,000 ($A240,500) for couples.

Republican aides later said Geithner had proposed passage by year's end of tax increases totalling $US1.6 trillion ($A1.54 trillion) over a decade, including the rate hikes sought by Obama.

They said the White House was also seeking year-end approval for an unspecified amount of new spending to renew expiring jobless benefits, help homeowners hit by the real estate collapse and prevent a looming January 1 cut in fees for doctors who treat Medicare patients.

The Republicans said the White House was offering unspecified spending cuts this year. Those would be followed next year by legislation producing savings from Medicare and other benefit programs of up to $US400 billion ($A385.23 billion) over a decade, a companion to an overhaul of the tax code.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rebutted moments later. "We're still waiting for a serious offer from Republicans," the Nevada Democrat said at a news conference. He noted Republican leaders had refused the president's call to extend expiring tax cuts for the middle class while letting them lapse at upper incomes.

At the White House, presidential press secretary Jay Carney said flatly, "There can be no deal without rates on top earners going up."

Taking a confrontational, at times sarcastic tone, he said: "This should not be news to anyone on Capitol Hill. It is certainly not news to anyone in America who was not in a coma during the campaign season."

The White House also circulated a memo that said closing loopholes and limiting tax deductions - a preferred Republican alternative to Obama's call to raise high-end tax rates - would be likely to depress charitable donations and wind up leading to a middle class tax increase in the near future.

With barely a month remaining until year's end, the hardening of positions seemed more likely to mark a transition into hard bargaining rather than signal an end to efforts to achieve a compromise on the first postelection challenge of divided government.

Economists in and out of government warn that sending the economy over the "cliff" would trigger a recession.

To avoid the danger, Obama and Congress are hoping to devise a plan that can reduce future deficits by as much as $US4 trillion ($A3.85 trillion) in a decade, cancel the tax increases and automatic spending cuts and expand the government's ability to borrow beyond the current limit of $US16.4 trillion ($A15.79 trillion).