WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional Republicans dug in on their opposition to raising taxes on the wealthy on Thursday, even as polls showed them at a growing disadvantage in the U.S. "fiscal cliff" showdown with President Barack Obama.
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top congressional Republican, refused to give ground and voiced frustration about talks with the White House to avert the steep tax hikes and spending cuts that will be triggered at the end of the year unless Congress intervenes.
At a news conference, Boehner occasionally raised his voice to charge that Obama's bottom-line insistence on raising tax rates on the richest 2 percent of Americans in any final deal would put American jobs at risk.
While Republicans fumed, Obama, who is enjoying a post-election surge in his approval ratings, continued his public relations offensive, scheduling a round of interviews with anchors from local television stations, following his interview with ABC's Barbara Walters two days ago.
With time running out, not even experienced Washington hands are pretending to know when and how it will end.
The back-and-forth rhetoric between Republicans and Democrats, with each accusing the other of not being serious in the negotiations, has been underway since the start of the post-election lame-duck session of Congress with almost no variation in the wording.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, citing public opinion polls, said Boehner "can't ignore the American people forever" on the tax issue. "At some point, reality should set in," he told reporters.
"Raising tax rates will hurt small businesses at a time when we're expecting small businesses to be the engine of job creation in America," said Boehner, who used a chart to illustrate his point that curbing spending increases was the key to deficit reduction.
If Obama persists on a path of higher spending and higher taxes, he said, "this chart is going to look a lot worse," he said.
Economists say failure to reach an agreement before January 1 could tip the country back into recession. The main hurdle is the expiring tax cuts, which Obama wants extended for all but the rich and Boehner wants extended for everyone.
Wall Street hovered near break-even but then turned lower on Thursday after Boehner's comments.
A flurry of new polls showed strong support for Obama's position. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC survey, three-quarters of Americans say they would accept raising taxes on the wealthy to avoid the cliff. Even among Republicans, some 61 percent say they would accept tax increases on high earners.
A Pew Research Center poll on Thursday showed Obama's approval rating rising and 55 percent saying Obama was making a serious effort to engage in the fiscal talks, while just 32 percent said Republicans were serious about a deal.
The polls have put Republicans in a difficult negotiating position, and pressure has grown on Boehner in recent weeks from the right and left. Some Republicans have expressed a willingness to give in on higher tax rates in exchange for deeper spending cuts, while conservatives have demanded Boehner stand firm.
'MY JOB AS SPEAKER'
"I'm not concerned about my job as speaker," Boehner, who faces re-election to the leadership post in January, told reporters.
Boehner also dismissed any notion that Republicans would agree to Obama's request for permanent authority to increase borrowing as part of a "fiscal cliff" agreement.
"Congress is never going to give up our ability to control the purse," Boehner said. "The debt limit ought to be used to bring fiscal sanity to Washington."
Senior Democratic Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota said on MSNBC on Wednesday he thought the two sides were edging closer to a deal and would announce an agreement next week.
"I believe that they will have a framework agreement," Conrad said. "I believe they'll have it early next week. And I believe it will secure the votes in both the Senate and the House. We may miss some on the wings, but I think the center will hold."
Republican Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, in a Fox Business News interview Wednesday evening, disagreed with Conrad's assessment.
"I started pretty optimistic about this that we could get this done well before the holidays, but I don't feel that way anymore," Brady said. "It seems to me a decision's been made perhaps by the White House already to take us off this fiscal cliff."
Conservative Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina said the economy had already been damaged by the uncertainty caused by the deadlock.
"We can't fix it Christmas Eve and expect it all to bounce back in January," he said Thursday on CBS.
(Additional reporting by Kim Dixon and Rachelle Younglai; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Paul Simao)