WASHINGTON -- A top Republican leader emerged from a meeting with the U.S. treasury secretary Thursday and accused Democrats of failing to outline specific cuts to avert deep austerity measures that threaten to send the economy into recession at the start of next year.

"No substantive progress has been made between the White House and the House" in the past two weeks, House Speaker John Boehner told reporters after the private meeting with Tim Geithner. "I was hopeful we'd see a specific plan for cutting spending, and we sought to find out today what the president really is willing to do."

Boehner spoke by phone with President Barack Obama on Wednesday night, and he said his remarks Thursday were the result of that conversation as well.

The White House and other Democrats said the Republicans were the ones holding things up.

Obama spokesman Jay Carney said Republicans must accept the reality that tax rates for the top 2 per cent of income earners are going to go up, as Obama has insisted. To Boehner's criticism that the president has not detailed a cost-cutting plan, Carney held up a copy of Obama's plan from September 2011, noting that it was available online. "I believe they have electricity and Internet connections," Carney said.

At issue are steep, across-the-board cuts to the Pentagon and domestic programs set to strike the economy in January, as well as the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts on income and investments. That combination would wring more than half a trillion dollars from the economy in the first nine months of next year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Those changes will automatically take effect unless the Obama administration and a divided Congress can reach a deal by the end of the year to avoid them.

Many experts worry that allowing the spending cuts and tax increases for even a relatively brief period could rattle financial markets.

Obama insists on extending all expiring tax cuts except for those that apply to incomes over $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples. Boehner and other Republicans say that would harm the economy rather than help it.

Boehner also has said that Republicans are willing to endorse higher tax revenues, but only as part of a deal that includes savings from the most popular government benefit programs like Medicare, or health care for the aging, and the Social Security pension program.

Obama has been mounting a public campaign to build support in the negotiations, appearing at the White House with middle-class taxpayers and launching a campaign on Twitter to bolster his position.

That approach has not gone over well with Republicans. "To date, the administration has remained focused on raising taxes and attending campaign-style events, with no specific plans to protect Medicare and Social Security or reduce our national debt in a meaningful way," top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell said in a statement after his own meeting with Geithner on Thursday.

From their public statements, Obama and Boehner appear at an impasse over raising the two top tax rates from 33 per cent and 35 per cent to 36 per cent and 39.6 per cent. Democrats seem confident that Boehner ultimately will have to crumble, but Obama has a lot at stake as well, including a clear agenda for other priorities like an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.

Obama also was meeting privately Thursday with his defeated Republican rival Mitt Romney. The president has cast his re-election as a sign that Americans back his tax proposals, which were a centerpiece of his campaign.