President Obama continued to campaign both publicly and privately on Monday for a $4 trillion "grand bargain" mix of spending cuts, entitlement reforms, and revenue increases, even though Republicans continued to reject his offer. The president hit that theme in his morning press conference and delivered the same message when he got congressional leaders behind closed doors later in the day at the White House.
According to Democrats familiar with the negotiations, the president stressed that there was no way of getting to the level of cuts desired by House Speaker John Boehner without some revenue changes. And, with at least 80 House Republicans ready to vote against any increase in the debt limit, he noted that nothing will pass the House without a “significant” number of Democratic votes so any package has to be able to get Democrats.
The talks will resume at the White House on Tuesday afternoon, with a tentative start time of 3:45 p.m.
More than once Monday, Obama told the leaders that they would all feel political pain no matter how small a package of spending cuts they come up with. “So,” he said, “we might as well do something big and noble.” He also told them that any package that does not include new revenue would only bring the deficit savings to about $1.5 trillion, less than what Boehner has said he needs.
But the Republican leaders gave no sign of yielding to the White House pressure. “There was not movement,” one Democratic official conceded glumly.
Democrats on Monday also made clear to the Republicans that any agreement by the president to trim spending on popular entitlements is good only if seen as part of a big deal. Along those lines, Democrats confirmed that a big deal would include a possible increase in the Medicare eligibility age, possibly rising to 67. The official confirmed that the eligibility age is “on the table,” but he said that would only be the case in the big deal and said the president is only willing to talk about a “very slow phase-in” with the final age not becoming law until 2036.
The officials also stressed that the president sees a higher age as possible only because his health care reform law would provide care for somebody before they reached the new age.
The Monday session, which lasted 90 minutes, was described as the most detailed yet of the meetings held at such a high level. “It was very detailed,” said one Democrat, adding, “This was one of the wonkier discussions that you’ve had at the leadership level.” For the Republicans, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., did most of the talking, going over in detail numbers that had been agreed to in earlier talks led by Vice President Joe Biden.
The Democrats disputed reports that Sunday night’s meeting of the group had been tense. They insisted that in that 75-minute session, there was one instant where Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., raised his voice. But they said he quickly apologized and the meeting continued at what they called a “civil” level. Tuesday’s meeting, they said, was similarly civil if not very exciting. “This was a 90-minute discussion of fiscal policy,” one said, “not necessarily high drama.”
No one in Monday’s meeting disputed that August 2 is a hard deadline, though there is less unanimity about how many days before that deadline will be needed to work out the legislation and move it through Congress. The White House has set July 22 as the action date.