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Obama, Congress Work on Recipe to Reduce National Debt

May 12, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
President Obama met with top lawmakers again Thursday, to continue working on a deal to reduce the nation's deficit. Ray Suarez reports on the battle lines being drawn by both parties, from spending cuts to new taxes.
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JIM LEHRER: The president and the Congress worked today on a recipe for reducing the national debt. The ingredients could include spending, taxes and oil.

Ray Suarez begins our coverage.

(APPLAUSE)

RAY SUAREZ: President Obama spoke first in a pre-taped town hall broadcast on CBS. He suggested it might take automatic spending cut and tax increase triggers to force action on curbing the national debt.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think what we’re going to end up having to do, probably, is to set some targets, and say, you know, those targets have to be hit. If not, automatically, some cuts and tax increases start taking place. And that will give incentive for us to negotiate and figure something out.

But this is going to be a topic not just over the next couple of months. This is going to be a values question for the American people over the next several years. I know my answer, and I’m going to be interested in having a vigorous debate with the Republicans about this issue.

RAY SUAREZ: The president had already told Senate Democrats on Wednesday not to draw lines in the sand.  

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did draw a line, after meeting with Mr. Obama today.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky.: There will be no tax increases in connection with raising the debt ceiling. We’re talking about spending reductions. We know what the options are. The questions — the only question remaining is, what will we pick up and agree to on a bipartisan basis?

RAY SUAREZ: The federal government is expected to hit the debt ceiling no later than May 16. It caps what the government may borrow. Right now, the limit is $14.3 trillion.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner says he can prevent a default until Aug. 2, but the pressure is on to get an agreement soon.

Monday, House Speaker John Boehner said Republicans would demand $2 trillion in spending cuts as the price for raising the debt ceiling. And today, like Sen. McConnell, he insisted that tax increases not be part of any deal.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: This is the moment, and this is the opportunity for America to get its fiscal house in order.

I believe that raising taxes on the very people that we expect to reinvest in our economy and to hire people is the wrong idea. For those people to give that money to the government that means it won’t get reinvested in our economy at a time when we’re trying to create jobs.

RAY SUAREZ: Amid the verbal sparring, Vice President Biden and a bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers held a third round of talks on deficit reduction, and there was more action at the Capitol.

The fight over spending spilled over into a Senate hearing room today with top executives from the five largest oil companies. Democrats on the Finance Committee said if Republicans are serious about cutting spending they will support an end to the tax breaks for the oil industry.

Democrats argue that doing away with the subsidies would save $21 billion dollars over 10 years.

But at the outset, the committee’s top Republican, Utah’s Orrin Hatch, charged Democrats were more focused on politics than policy.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH, R-Utah: This hearing should not be used to score cheap political points. But I’m afraid, with all due respect, Mr. Chairman, that that’s what we’re going to see here today.

I have a chart depicting what I expect this hearing to turn into. And there you go.

RAY SUAREZ: New York Sen. Chuck Schumer shot back that his side had a just cause.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER, D-NY: One of my colleagues suggested that this hearing is nothing more than a dog and pony show. We’ll, you’d have an easier time convincing the American people that a unicorn just flew into this hearing room than that these big oil companies need taxpayer subsidies. That’s the real fairy tale.

RAY SUAREZ: Another Democrat, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, warned the oil execs it’s time for them to do their part.

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER, D-W.Va.: I think the main reason that you’re out of touch, particularly with respect to Americans and the sacrifices that we’re having to look at here in terms of trying to balance, or come even close to balancing a budget, is that you never lose. You’ve never lost. You always prevail.

RAY SUAREZ: In fact, the companies including Chevron, a NewsHour underwriter, racked up profits of $36 billion in the first quarter of this year.

But Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson insisted efforts to eliminate tax breaks are wrong-headed.

REX TILLERSON, ExxonMobil: It is not simply that they are misinformed and discriminatory, they are counterproductive. By undermining U.S. competitiveness, they would discourage future investments in energy projects in the United States and therefore undercut job creation and economic growth. And because they would hinder investment in new energy supplies, they do nothing to help reduce prices.

RAY SUAREZ: Democrats are pushing to hold a Senate vote on their proposal to strip the oil companies of their subsidies next week.