Debt talks get testy as Obama raises pressure
President Obama called congressional leaders to the White House for a third day of talks Tuesday after a testy afternoon meeting Monday failed to bridge any of the wide differences separating Democrats and Republicans over taxes, spending and entitlement programs.
Obama used a news conference Monday morning and a private session in the afternoon to urge Republicans to reconsider their refusal to accept a large-scale deficit-reduction package that would combine revenue increases, cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, and reductions in a long list of government programs to reduce the long-term debt by about $4 trillion over 10 years.
In his news conference, Obama sought repeatedly to portray himself as a centrist, seeking to prod Democrats and Republicans into a necessary compromise.
“I’m willing to move in their direction to get something done,” Obama said, referring to Republicans. “We have a system of government in which everybody’s going to have to give a little bit.”
But if anything, the two sides appeared to move further apart. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) complained that the Medicare and Social Security changes the president had discussed did not count as “fundamental reform.”
Some Democrats reacted with anger to news that Obama would consider a gradual increase in the age at which people would become eligible for Medicare. Democratic officials said the plan under discussion would be a “very slow phase-in” that would change the eligibility age over the next 25 years.
The two sides have been stalemated since Saturday, when discussions between Obama and Boehner aimed at forging a $4-trillion compromise fell apart. Boehner has since said that the White House would not give up the idea of including higher taxes in the deal, which he had not agreed to. Administration officials say Boehner got cold feet after pressure from conservatives in his caucus.
The impetus for reaching a deal is that the federal government is set to hit its debt ceiling about Aug. 2. If Congress doesn’t vote to raise the limit, the government won’t be able to pay its bills. Republicans have refused to allow more borrowing unless Obama and Democrats agree to a major cut in the long-term deficit.
Since the weekend, Republicans have said they would seek a deal of about $2.5 trillion that would not include any new revenue. But Democratic officials familiar with Monday’s talks said Obama and congressional Democrats noted that the GOP had not yet identified that amount of cuts, nor had Republican leaders found the votes to pass such a deal.
In the White House meeting, aides familiar with the talks said Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) laid out his understanding of what had been agreed to last month in discussions led by Vice President Joe Biden. The proposals he listed included about $250 billion in cuts to Medicare over the 10-year period. Democrats denied they had agreed to that.
“The idea that this was what the Biden group did was laughable,” said one Democratic aide familiar with the talks. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, was exasperated with Cantor’s proposal. He told the group it would not pass the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Without adding revenue-raising measures to the mix, Republicans at best can cut the deficit by about $1.5 trillion over 10 years, said two Democratic officials familiar with the discussions.
Obama’s message to Republican leaders, one of those officials said, was “to go back and think a little harder. Think about how to bridge the differences, but also think about whether or not it doesn’t make more sense to go for a bigger deal that was going to do something more meaningful to get our debt and deficit on a sustainable path.”
On Monday, the two sides were still sniping at each other, even in private.
During the afternoon meeting at the White House, Boehner took issue with suggestions from Democrats that cutting Medicare and other entitlements would be an easy vote for Republicans, according to one GOP aide familiar with the talks.
When Boehner said Republican lawmakers weren’t “cheerleading” about cutting entitlements, the aide said, Obama pointed out that they had already voted for Medicare cuts when they approved a recent budget proposal by Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).
“Excuse us for trying to lead,” came the retort, the aide said.
Peter Nicholas in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.
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