Debt talks aim for Sunday announcement of progress

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 23, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Facing a potential financial market meltdown if they don't reach a deal before Monday, President Barack Obama and congressional leaders engaged Saturday in last-ditch talks aimed at ending the debt-limit impasse.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio told GOP colleagues after the 49-minute Saturday morning meeting that he's hoping for a bipartisan congressional statement sometime Sunday that shows progress, though no final deal appeared imminent.

Negotiators face two immediate challenges. They want to calm Asian markets, which open late Sunday U.S. time. And they face a legislative calendar that virtually requires Congress to start considering legislation early in the week if the debt limit is to be raised before the government exhausts its borrowing authority on Aug. 2.

Obama met Saturday morning with Boehner, Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

Publicly, there was little movement. Obama and Boehner, who Friday had engaged in a messy public feud over deficit-reduction strategy, issued terse statements after the brief White House meeting.

Boehner said, "Congress will forge a responsible path forward," and didn't mention Obama. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney warned that "Congress should refrain from playing reckless political games with our economy."

Officials familiar with the talks said the participants are well aware of the stakes, and were trading ideas with White House aides and rank and file lawmakers on how to find some kind of deficit-reduction deal and also increase the nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling.

Obama said he would not accept a short-term deal that would require a repeat of this drama in a few months. He told the congressional leaders to report back to him with details that could lead to an agreement.

Obama, Carney said, "restated his opposition to a short-term extension of the debt ceiling, explaining that a short-term extension could cause our country's credit rating to be downgraded, causing harm to our economy and causing every American to pay higher credit card rates and more for home and car loans. "

McConnell has suggested raising the debt limit in three stages, an idea that appears to be going nowhere.

Carney said of any short-term solution, "it would be irresponsible to put our country and economy at risk again in just a few short months with another battle over raising the debt ceiling."

Saturday's participants were largely stoic and grim-faced during and after the morning meeting, a somewhat different mood than the anger that had erupted Friday after Boehner broke off talks toward a "grand bargain" of long-term deficit reduction along with raising the debt ceiling. Those talks failed because of unbridgeable gaps between the two partisan sides over taxes and spending cuts.

Boehner, who briefed Republican members of Congress in a Saturday afternoon conference call, said he's still hopeful of a $3 trillion spending cut deal. The deal would proceed in two stages, first with short-term cuts, and the rest later, after Congress has more time to work through restructuring major programs.

The ultimate solution, he said, rests with Congress — the same point he made in his Friday letter.

"As I said last night, over this weekend Congress will forge a responsible path forward," Boehner said. "House and Senate leaders will be working to find a bipartisan solution to significantly reduce Washington spending and preserve the full faith and credit of the United States."

There was no mention of Obama.

McConnell also suggested the solution rests with Congress.

"The president wanted to know that there was a plan for preventing national default," McConnell said following the morning session. "The bipartisan leadership in Congress is committed to working on new legislation that will prevent default while substantially reducing Washington spending."

Obama used his weekly radio and web address to try to ease tension.

"Now, folks in Washington like to blame one another for this problem. But the truth is, neither party is blameless. And both parties have a responsibility to do something about it, " he said.

The Capitol remained filled with uncertainty following the Friday night shock. Republicans have a 240 to 193 majority in the House of Representatives, while Democrats control 53 of the Senate's 100 seats.

Obama has been talking privately for weeks to Boehner, seeking a massive spending and tax package, as it became clear that the biggest hurdle to a deal would be House conservatives adamantly opposed to higher taxes.

House leaders want to begin considering legislation Monday, since they want to give rank and file members three days to consider any measure. If it cleared the House Wednesday, the Senate would have the four to six days leaders estimate is needed to clear procedural hurdles.

A bloc of House GOP lawmakers, generally veterans sympathetic to compromise, had signaled they could accept higher revenues, as long as individual and corporate tax rates were not increased. They could, they suggested, tolerate closing some corporate loopholes to raise revenue.

But Boehner decided Friday that Obama was asking too much. The president maintained he offered Republicans a package that included $800 billion in higher revenues, with no tax rate increases. Boehner said the president at the last minute wanted $400 billion more, and charged that dealing with the White House was like coping with Jell-O.

Obama has compromised with the GOP before at the last minute. In April, facing resistance from House conservatives, he agreed to $38.5 billion in current year spending cuts in order to keep the government open through Sept. 30.

Democrats howled, and 108 House Democrats voted against the plan. It won with a coalition of 179 Republicans and 81 Democrats.

This time, Obama has been friendlier to his own party. There was talk that he and Boehner were close to sealing a $3 trillion, 10-year spending cut deal Thursday, which would include a pledge to find ways to increase revenues.

But when word got out, Senate Democrats met and told Budget Director Jacob Lew how upset they were.

"I hadn't seen a meeting like this in my 35 years in Congress," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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