Debt Talks Intensify
Policy + Politics

Debt Talks Intensify

The contentious budget talks  that have dominated Washington for months intensified Wednesday, prompting President Obama to say he would accept a short-term hike in the debt ceiling if it gave lawmakers time to finalize a comprehensive deal.

Obama had pledged to veto any short-term measure, but White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday that the president could accept an extension of “a few days” if it allowed a long-term deficit-reduction and debt-ceiling deal to work its way through Congress.

The White House concession added to a whirlwind week in which negotiations appeared to be changing daily. At first, leaders were focused on a fallback plan that would raise the debt ceiling but do little to control future borrowing. Then they started considering an ambitious, but complicated, bipartisan strategy for raising taxes and cutting cherished health and retirement programs.

By Wednesday evening, as House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) huddled with Obama at the White House, aides in both parties said a grand bargain to slice $4 trillion out of the federal budget over the next decade was back on the table.

All of those options remain in the mix. “There are multiple trains heading towards the station, and we have to decide,” Carney said before Obama met with the two GOP leaders. “We need to be sure that that fail-safe option is there — even as we pursue, aggressively, the possibility of doing something bigger.”

Republican leaders went on record 10 days ago against the Obama proposal, saying that as long as the deal included higher tax revenue, it could not pass the House. And they maintained that stance after Wednesday’s meeting.

In a brief interview after the White House meeting, Cantor said he remained committed to “not raising taxes” but did not deny that discussions included a larger plan. “Again, there are a lot of things that may or may not be possible, but we’re just trying to drive toward a result right now,” he said.

The mood has changed in the past two days after the bipartisan “Gang of Six” senators unveiled a plan to shave at least $3.7 trillion off the deficit. Despite the fact that the plan included new tax revenue by closing loopholes, it received a relatively warm reception in some Republican quarters.

That has given Democrats hope that GOP resistance may be weaker than previously believed to a rewrite of the tax code that would raise significant new revenue — a key goal of negotiations between Obama and Boehner.

Still, the proposal came under fire Wednesday from some key Republicans, including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who said it calls for a tax increase of at least $2 trillion over the next decade.

By Wednesday afternoon, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a leader of the Gang of Six effort, said his primary push now is for “an option at some point for the Senate and the House to vote on the plan we’ve put together — which is the only bipartisan plan that’s come from anywhere.”

As the negotiations moved closer to the Aug. 2 deadline, the key obstacle to a deal remained the vehement opposition among many House Republicans to the proposals, especially ones that include higher tax revenue.

Some Democrats and administration officials question whether the GOP leadership can effectively sell a compromise to a fractious caucus determined to cut spending at all costs, particularly the bloc of 87 freshman Republicans. Democrats say they are not sure if there is any way to satisfy the needs of that faction. “We want to accommodate their needs,” Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) said of the House leaders. “We just don’t understand what their needs are.”

In part, this is the same dilemma facing GOP leaders as they try to negotiate. They don’t know what will sell, and selling is the only option they have. Boehner is not an arm-twister — as he campaigned for the speaker’s chair last year he vowed that he would take a more gentle, consensus-driven approach. Rank-and-file lawmakers are surveyed, their opinions sought out, their temperature taken, and then decisions are made about how to maneuver.

“It’s not an issue of style as much as it is an issue of the American people just aren’t where we need them to be yet in order to move the Congress,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).

“Part of this is just a slow education process of having people come to the realization of what it’s really going to take to balance the budget,” Nunes said. “I don’t think having a strong-arm style would have been any more helpful. It probably would have hurt early on.”

For the moment, Democrats are still waiting for an answer from House Republicans about the direction to take. “We have a plan to go forward over here, so I await word from the speaker,” Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Wednesday.

Later, after the meeting with Obama and Vice President Biden, Boehner huddled in the Capitol with a group of freshman lawmakers. GOP aides said it could be several more days before Boehner’s leadership team makes clear which path it intends to pursue.

Republicans are awaiting the outcome of the Senate’s debate on a bill that places caps on federal spending and then sends a constitutional amendment to the states mandating a balanced budget.

With Democrats in control of the Senate, that proposal’s defeat is likely to come by the weekend.

Staff writer Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.