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Amid ‘Serious Negotiations’ on Debt, Can Obama and GOP Find Common Ground?

June 1, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama met with congressional Republicans Wednesday to talk about a debt-reduction deal, but none was made. The meeting followed Tuesday night's largely symbolic House vote that rejected any stand-alone increase to the debt ceiling. Jim Lehrer discusses the prospects for a deal with Political Editor David Chalian.

JIM LEHRER: There was more top-level talk today about raising the nation’s borrowing limit, the so-called debt ceiling. This time, the setting was the White House, with President Obama playing host to some of his toughest critics.

On a sweltering Washington morning, House Republicans mustered at the executive mansion for the high-stakes talks on the debt limit.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio speaker of the House: I think it was an opportunity for, clearly, our members to communicate directly with the president about our ideas about how to get the economy going again, how to create jobs, and our ideas about how we solve the debt problem that’s facing our country.

JIM LEHRER: The meeting followed last night’s largely symbolic House vote that rejected any stand-alone increase to the debt ceiling, now at $14.3 trillion.

MAN: And the bill is not passed.

JIM LEHRER: Republicans staged the vote to reinforce their demand for major spending cuts before agreeing to increase the debt limit.

And at the White House today, Speaker Boehner came armed with a letter signed by 150 economists supporting the Republican position. They said spending cuts are needed to grow the U.S. economy. At the same time, Boehner and his colleagues reiterated they will accept no tax increases as part of the deal.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the session served mostly to lower the temperature on hotly-debated fiscal issues.

JAY CARNEY, White House press secretary: All of those disagreements will not be resolved in the next several weeks as these negotiations move forward. But there is common ground and more common ground can be found to significantly reduce our deficits.

JIM LEHRER: The U.S. government actually reached its borrowing limit last month. For now, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is using a variety of unorthodox measures to pay the bills. He’s said such tactics can run until Aug. 2, when the U.S. would face default, a prospect unnerving to Wall Street. Geithner will make that case to House Republican freshmen tomorrow.

The New York Times reported today Republican leaders have assured top Wall Street executives that a deal remains possible and last night’s debt ceiling vote was simply to make a point.

The president will sit down tomorrow with House Democrats. He’s already met with both parties in the Senate. And Vice President Biden continues wide-ranging negotiations on raising the debt ceiling and on cutting spending to reduce long-term budget deficits. The next session convenes June 9.

And to NewsHour Political Editor David Chalian.

David, welcome.


JIM LEHRER: Are there serious negotiations actually under way, or is it all still about making points from both sides, each side?

DAVID CHALIAN: There are serious negotiations under way, Jim. Today’s meeting wasn’t that.

DAVID CHALIAN: That’s a very large group. You have a couple hundred House Republicans there. You’re not going to get into the sort of meat and potatoes of this deal.

But the Biden negotiations that you mentioned there in the piece, that’s where the serious action is happening. That’s where bipartisan, bicameral, Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate at the table. And they are making progress. All sides say that they’re making progress.

And I think there’s some debate about how much progress they’re making, but that is where the serious negotiation is taking place about reducing the deficit to a sufficient level in order to get enough support to raise the borrowing limit.

JIM LEHRER: And reducing the deficit by cutting federal spending, right? There are very few — there’s no talk about raising taxes in any form or any — in any way whatever, correct?

DAVID CHALIAN: Correct in the sense that the Republicans, Speaker Boehner and Sen. McConnell, the leader of Republicans in the Senate, have said tax increases are off the table. They will not put that on the table.

What the administration and Republicans do agree that they are talking about is tax reform, right, some way to reform the tax code that can increase revenues, but not — that wouldn’t amount to a net tax increase.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. They wouldn’t call it tax increasing. They would call it tax reforming, right?

DAVID CHALIAN: They would call it tax reforming. This is closing some loopholes, perhaps lowering the rate of corporate taxes.

JIM LEHRER: What did you find out about what was actually said in this meeting today?

DAVID CHALIAN: Well, one congressman, Phil Gingrey, was walking out and called the sort of tone and tenor of it frosty. I can’t find anyone else that says that. I spoke to a lot of members, and the word you hear over and over again is that diplomatic speak, frank and productive, but that it was a very frank conversation.

I just spoke to the number-three Republican in the House leadership, Kevin McCarthy, and he used that word, and he said, without the press in there, nobody was sort of doing the political posturing. They really took the opportunity, the House Republicans did, to explain to the president where the philosophical divides are, where they’re coming from.

But, Jim, what I found this fascinating about this meeting, the president began the meeting talking about the debt limit, the need to raise it, but then, quickly, they pivoted to a host of other issues. That wasn’t the crux of the meeting. The meeting talked about jobs. It talked about the Medicare reform plan that’s in the Paul Ryan plan. They even talked about EPA regulations that the Republicans are sort of bucking against.

But the notion of the need to raise the debt limit was not actually part of the debate today. And that’s because the president at the very top of the meeting, I’m told, said, listen, we can’t really play games with this, so I’m not even going to sort of debate this with you guys here today.

JIM LEHRER: But is there, in fact, agreement about that, about the need to raise the debt limit, however you do it?


Certainly, there are a bunch of Tea Party freshman Republicans, the folks that Tim Geithner is going to talk to, the treasury secretary, tomorrow on the Hill…


DAVID CHALIAN: … that don’t believe you have to raise it.

But I do think there is bipartisan agreement. In fact, in my conversation with Congressman McCarthy just a little bit ago, he said, David, remember, we passed the Ryan budget. And in that budget, the Republican budget, we assume there’s going to be an increase in the debt limit. Our own budget calls for an increase in the debt limit, he’s saying.

So Republicans, the leadership, under — they understand that the debt limit is not something you want to play with. They wanted to make sure Wall Street was aware last night that this was just a symbolic vote. So, I think there is agreement. There’s no doubt that there’s agreement that it will be raised.

But their point all along is it just must be raised with an equal amount of spending cuts attached to it. That, they say, is actually needed for the economy, that economic watchers, that the job market and what have you, those that are hiring want to see an equal commitment to the need to raise the debt limit to continue to pay our bills, but an equal commitment to reducing the spending.

JIM LEHRER: Aug. 2 is the magic — is now the magic date. And there’s no indication that anything is going to happen. So, it will be a deadline thing, will it not?

DAVID CHALIAN: There’s nothing Congress loves more than a deadline, right? I mean, that — we have seen time and again that, when their work needs to get done, they go right up to the deadline.

There is a little bit of a concern if the markets start to get rattled that they’re getting to close to the deadline. So I think this will go, though, to the end of July.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Thanks, David.