Congressional leaders are set to return to the White House on Monday afternoon after making little headway in a sometimes tense Sunday night meeting with President Obama to resolve a partisan standoff over raising the nation’s debt ceiling and cutting the deficit. In response to their complaints that no proposal that includes new tax revenue could get the approval of the GOP House, Obama told the Republicans to come back Monday with a plan that could pass.
But before resuming those talks, Obama is to hold a morning news conference (11 a.m., tentatively), where he is expected to take his case to the American public, apparently seeking to apply more pressure on Republicans for a larger-scale deficit-cutting plan, one closer to $4 trillion in budget reductions over the next 10 years.
Obama was asked by a reporter before Sunday night’s meeting whether he thought a deal could be reached in the next 10 days, and he responded, “We need to.”
But in the closed-door talks in the Cabinet Room, which lasted about 70 minutes, Republicans reportedly intensified their opposition to such a larger approach, even as Obama continued to push the opportunity to do something bolder and more substantial. The president seemed eager to take the prospect of an incremental, stopgap deal off the table, according to multiple congressional sources.
By the meeting’s conclusion, there emerged no clearer answer to how—or even whether—a compromise to raising the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling will be reached by the August 2 deadline that Treasury has said could mean the start of the U.S. defaulting on some of its obligations.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, had already announced Saturday that his party could not support such a large approach, which, while it might have included some cuts to entitlement programs that Republicans want, would also have forced them to accept some tax increases.
Sunday night, it was House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who were the dominant voices for the GOP, reasserting that such tax increases were not acceptable and could not pass muster in the House.
According to aides briefed on the meetings, Cantor and Kyl insisted that the two sides should focus on producing a smaller measure more along the lines of $2.4 trillion in deficit cuts in a package based on talks that had been led by Vice President Joe Biden, though much of how that plan would be accomplished also remains uncertain. Cantor and Kyl themselves had walked away last month from continued participation from the Biden group over the issue of raising taxes—when efforts to identify $2.4 trillion in savings got stuck at $1.5 trillion.
Democrats in the room were surprised that Boehner did not take a more leading role, according to a Hill aide briefed on the talks. “Cantor did all the talking for Boehner,” one aide said.
But a GOP aide said that it should not be a surprise that Cantor and Kyl were leading discussions, given their position as lead negotiators in the Biden talks and the fact that the negotiators are now again eyeing a deal following an outline established by the Biden group.
A Boehner aide said the speaker was himself very direct in restating to Obama that a larger deal cannot be done—and that there is not enough time or a path right now to continue pursuing that. “The speaker told the group that he believes a package based on the work of the Biden group is the most viable option at this time for moving forward,” said a Boehner aide. Boehner also restated the GOP’s principles that must be met for any increase in the debt limit: spending cuts and reforms that are greater than the amount of the increase, restraints on future spending, and no tax hikes, said the aide.
On the Democratic side, Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Reid “remains firmly committed to getting the most robust deal possible,” but in the meeting “stressed the need for an approach that is balanced between spending and revenues, in terms of timing, specificity, and dollars.”
Jentleson said Reid “believes the stakes are too high for Republicans to keep taking the easy way out, and he is committed to meeting every day until we forge a deal, however long that takes.”
According to two officials briefed on the meeting, Reid also offered one of the sharper moments in the Sunday meeting when he expressed frustration with Republicans for repeatedly walking away from debt negotiations. Reid said, “Every time we try to do something big, you guys walk away,” one source said.
The officials said Reid cited the decision by seven original GOP cosponsors of legislation to create a fiscal commission with more power than eventual Simpson-Bowles commission to vote against the measure, ensuring its defeat; the decision by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to pull out of the "Gang of Six" talks this spring when a deal was close; Cantor’s exit last month from Biden talks; and Boehner’s announcement Saturday that he was pulling out of talks on a “big” agreement with $4 trillion in deficit cuts.
In a statement after the Sunday night meeting, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said, “We came into this weekend with the prospect that we could achieve a grand bargain. We are still hopeful for a large bipartisan agreement, which means more stability for our economy, more growth and jobs, and more deficit reduction over a longer period of time.” But she said such a package “must do no harm to the middle class or to economic growth. It must also protect Medicare and Social Security beneficiaries.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., added in his own statement, “Tonight, the President made clear that we will continue ongoing discussions as we work to reach agreement on a long-term, balanced approach to reduce our deficit.” But Hoyer said he was “disappointed my Republican colleagues have indicated they’re not in favor of a compromise deal that would address the fiscal crisis in a serious way.”
But Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., faulted Obama, saying the president continued to push for tax increases as part of the deal but has failed deliver Democratic support for cutting spending on entitlements.
“It's disappointing that the president is unable to bring his own party around to the entitlement reform that he put on the table," Stewart said. "And it's baffling that the president and his party continue to insist on massive tax hikes in the middle of a jobs crisis while refusing to take significant action on spending reductions at a time of record deficits. Sen. McConnell believes we need to reduce Washington spending, reform and strengthen entitlement programs, and prevent the more than trillion dollars in tax hikes that Democrats want to add at a time of rising unemployment."