In Obama speech and John Boehner reply, political jockeying on debt ceiling

The Obama speech Monday night and the subsequent address by Speaker John Boehner were mainly about scoring political points in the bitter fight over raising the national debt ceiling.

Jim Watson/AP
President Barack Obama addresses the nation from the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, July 25, on the approaching debt limit deadline.

The dueling speeches delivered to the nation Monday night by President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner had nothing to do with resolving the political impasse over raising the federal debt ceiling and everything to do with posturing and point-scoring.

For Mr. Obama, who has now been cut out of congressional negotiations, the prime-time address was a direct appeal to the American people to weigh in on the side of a “balanced approach” (spending cuts and increased revenue) and “compromise” in deficit reduction. He placed the blame for the impasse squarely on the shoulders of Republican House members, who will vote to prevent default only if their “deep, spending-cuts-only” plan is implemented, he said.

Then the president asked supporters to register their dismay with Congress.

“The American people may have voted for divided government, but they didn’t vote for a dysfunctional government,” Obama said. “So I’m asking you all to make your voice heard. If you want a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, let your member of Congress know.”

Soon, the websites of congressional leaders and other member and committee sites went down. The cause has yet to be determined, but if the flood of Web traffic is found to favor mostly Obama, then score one for the presidential bully pulpit.

The only problem is that Obama’s vision of a grand bargain – one that would marry big spending cuts with higher tax revenues – is no longer on the table. Even if there were a chance it could come back, there’s hardly time to get it through Congress before Aug. 2, when the US government risks beginning to go into default without new borrowing authority.

Both plans currently in the works on Capitol Hill – one by the Republican Speaker Boehner and the other by the Democratic Senate majority leader, Harry Reid – contain only spending cuts.

For Boehner, who scheduled his own national address after Obama’s was announced, the air time was an opportunity to blame the president for the impasse.

“I want you to know I made a sincere effort to work with the president to identify a path forward that would implement the principles of ‘cut, cap, and balance’ in a manner that could secure bipartisan support and be signed into law. I gave it my all,” Boehner said. He was referring to House-passed legislation that would cut and cap federal spending, and require passage of a balanced budget amendment to the US Constitution before the debt ceiling could be raised.

“Unfortunately, the president would not take yes for an answer,” Boehner said. “Even when we thought we might be close on an agreement, the president’s demands changed.”

“Cut, cap, and balance” went nowhere in the Senate, and now Boehner is trying to sell a milder version to his Republican majority, though the right wing of his caucus has balked. Boehner’s new plan would also require a raising of the debt ceiling in two installments, a concept that Obama adamantly opposes. Not only would it extend the uncertainty over Washington’s finances at a time when debt-rating agencies are considering lowering the US rating – to potentially devastating economic effect – but it would also set up a second round of debt-ceiling negotiation during the 2012 presidential campaign.

In the Senate, majority leader Reid is proposing a $2.7 trillion cut in spending over 10 years coupled with an increase in the debt ceiling of $2.4 trillion through the end of 2012. Before Obama delivered his evening address, White House spokesman Jay Carney called Reid’s plan "a reasonable approach that should receive the support of both parties."

But chances are, neither the Reid nor the Boehner plans will pass. On the assumption that both fail – and with the clock ticking ever closer to next Tuesday – negotiations toward compromise can begin in earnest, analysts say.

Both Republicans and Democrats say the next election explains a big part of the impasse: Republicans say Obama cares only about getting reelected and doesn’t want to have to make any painful choices (i.e., do his job) amid another debt-ceiling vote. Democrats say the Republicans want precisely that – to make the president squirm over spending cuts right as he’s trying to convince Americans to give him four more years.

The American people, polls show, just want the debt ceiling deadlock to be resolved, so that Washington can focus on the issue dearest to them: economic recovery and jobs.

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