President Obama sounded an optimistic note Wednesday on debt-ceiling talks with Republicans, a little more than a month before the Aug. 2 deadline, when the federal government risks beginning to default on its obligations.
The negotiations are log-jammed over the issue of tax increases. Democrats are adamant that some subsidies and tax loopholes be eliminated in the name of deficit reduction; Republicans are adamant that anything that can be called a tax increase stay off the table.
But in the end, Mr. Obama said at a White House press conference, “My expectation is that they'll do the responsible thing.”
The president also acknowledged that entitlements are on the table. “And that's always difficult politically,” Obama said. “But I've been willing to say we need to see where we can reduce the cost of health-care spending and Medicare and Medicaid in the out years, not by shifting costs onto seniors, as some have proposed, but rather by actually reducing those costs.”
Republicans have taken a big hit in public opinion over their budget, which turns Medicare into a voucher program and Medicaid into block grants. Obama opposes this approach, but by agreeing that entitlements need to be on the table, the president is throwing them a little life line. Now he wants them to reciprocate.
Obama said that if “everybody else is willing to take on their sacred cows and do tough things in order to achieve the goal of real deficit reduction,” then it’s the Republicans’ turn to do the same. He repeated examples his administration has been using for days, such as removing tax breaks for corporate jets and eliminating subsidies for the oil and gas industries.
“My belief is, is that the Republican leadership in Congress will, hopefully sooner rather than later, come to the conclusion that they need to make the right decisions for the country, that everybody else has been willing to move off their maximalist position and they need to do the same,” Obama said.
In his hour-plus press conference, Obama also harkened back to his old campaign mantra about the “fierce urgency of now” – a quote from the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In the 2011 version, it’s the fierce urgency of “right now.” He repeated the phrase “right now” 25 times during his session with reporters.
It seemed, in part, an effort to convey to Americans that he’s on the case, addressing a sluggish economic recovery and stubbornly high unemployment. But the urgency applies to other matters. The clock is ticking in the debt-ceiling talks with Republicans. And it’s ticking toward November 2012, when he will face the voters again.
Obama laid out steps his administration can take to address the jobs issue “right now” – such as looking at government regulations that might be hindering job growth. Then he called on Congress to tackle a list of measures “right now”: pass legislation that makes it easier to patent a product; pass a bill that creates jobs in the construction of roads and bridges by easing loans for such projects; pass free trade bills that would enhance US exports.
Obama also sought to make the Aug. 2 deadline on the debt ceiling a jobs issue.
“This is not an abstraction,” he said. “If the United States government, for the first time, cannot pay its bills, if it defaults, then the consequences for the US economy will be significant and unpredictable.”
Republican House Speaker John Boehner slammed Obama after the press conference, saying the “votes simply aren’t there” in the House for a plan that would “raise taxes.”
“The president's remarks today ignore legislative and economic reality, and demonstrate remarkable irony,” Speaker Boehner said in a statement. “His administration has been burying our kids and grandkids in new debt and offered no plan to rein in spending. Republicans have been leading and offering solutions to put the brakes on this spending binge. The president has been AWOL from that debate.”
He then repeated the Republican position that “tax hikes destroy jobs.”
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