TOPICS > Politics

Durbin: ‘Slow Going’ Inside Debt Limit Talks

July 11, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama and congressional leaders returned to the negotiating table Monday afternoon, but a deficit-reduction deal remains elusive as the Aug. 2 deadline nears for raising the debt limit. Gwen Ifill discusses the latest developments in the partisan stalemate with Sen. Dick Durban, D-Ill., and Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill.
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GWEN IFILL: President Obama and congressional leaders from both parties were back at the negotiating table this afternoon. The meeting lasted for 90 minutes, and a deficit-reduction deal continued to prove elusive.

The president had a stern message for Republicans this morning, after hopes for a sweeping deficit deal foundered over the weekend.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I do not see a path to a deal if they don’t budge, period. I mean, if the basic proposition is it’s my way or the highway, then we’re probably not going to get something done because we’ve got divided government.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Obama pressed Republicans to agree to new tax revenues and Democrats to accept spending cuts in a deal to raise the debt ceiling, the government’s borrowing limit. And he said he wouldn’t settle for a short-term compromise.

BARACK OBAMA: The things that I will not consider are a 30-day or a 60-day or a 90-day or a 180-day temporary stopgap resolution to this problem. This is the United States of America and, you know, we don’t manage our affairs in three-month increments. You know, we don’t risk U.S. default on our obligations because we can’t put politics aside.

GWEN IFILL: House Speaker John Boehner, who initially endorsed the idea of a grand bargain that could have included $4 trillion in savings, pulled his support over the weekend.

Today, he said the president is to blame for the deadlock.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio speaker of the House: I think the president and I both understand that — that the nation faces very difficult decision.

And there clearly is no personality difference between the president and I. I get along with him fine. This boils down to two things. And I said it on Saturday night. The president continues to insist on raising taxes, and they’re just not serious enough about fundamental entitlement reform to solve the problem for the near to intermediate future.

I want to get there. I want to do what I think is in the right interests — the best interests of country. But it takes two to tango, and they’re not there yet.

GWEN IFILL: Compromise, which seemed within reach only days ago, appeared more distant today, as Boehner repeatedly accused the White House of seeking to increase taxes.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: But the American people will not accept and the House cannot pass a bill that raises taxes on job-creators.

GWEN IFILL: The president’s response today: If not now, when elections are still months away, when?

BARACK OBAMA: If we think it’s hard now, imagine how these guys are going to be thinking six months from now in the middle of election season when they’re all up. It’s not going to get easier; it’s going to get harder. So we might as well do it now, pull off the Band-Aid, eat our peas.

I’m prepared to take on significant heat from my party to get something done. And I expect the other side should be willing to do the same thing if they mean what they say, that this is important.

GWEN IFILL: Boehner said he is only willing to pay the political price for the right deal.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: I understand that this is going to take sacrifice, and it’s going to take political capital on both sides. And I am certainly willing to take my fair share of it. But if we’re going to take political capital, then let’s step up and do the big thing and the right thing for country.

GWEN IFILL: Both leaders have been pressured by members of their own party. The Club for Growth, a conservative group, released this video today.

NARRATOR: What will Republicans do, cave in or show some spine?

GWEN IFILL: The administration has warned lawmakers must raise the debt ceiling by Aug. 2, or risk, as the president said today, another recession.

BARACK OBAMA: I will say that some of the professional politicians know better. And for them to say that we shouldn’t be raising the debt ceiling is irresponsible. They know better.

GWEN IFILL: One who’s taken that stance, Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, campaigned against raising the debt limit increase today in Iowa.

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN, R-Minn. presidential candidate: I say take that shovel out of their hands. It’s time that they stop digging us into debt.

GWEN IFILL: Negotiators returned to the White House for the third time in five days today, and said they will continue to meet daily.

For more on the latest twists and turns in the negotiations, we’re joined by a Republican and a Democrat involved in the debate, first, Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, a member of the Republican leadership. He also serves on the House Ways and Means Committee.

Congressman Roskam, one of the things we seemed to hear today, listening to the president and to Speaker Boehner, is that they both agree that there ought to be a vote on raising the debt ceiling, and that the debt ceiling should be raised.

Is that fair, that that is an area of agreement? Is that fair to say?

REP. PETER ROSKAM, R-Ill.: Well, I think there is an area of agreement that says that the trajectory of spending in Washington, D.C., fundamentally has to change.

There was a bipartisan vote a few weeks ago in the House of Representatives that rejected on a bipartisan basis the notion of simply raising the debt ceiling without any preconditions. And what I think Speaker Boehner and others have said and what I’m hearing from my congressional district is that any increase in the debt ceiling needs to be coupled with cuts that are deeper than the increase.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we’re talking about cuts. We were talking last Friday — or at least the president and Speaker Boehner seemed to be talking in the range of $4 trillion.

And now today we’re hearing that, at the meeting this afternoon, they were talking more in the range of $2 trillion. What is acceptable for Republicans?

REP. PETER ROSKAM: Well, I think the big stumbling block right now is the president’s insistence on raising taxes.

And I think we need to go back two years ago, in 2009, when President Obama was asked in Elkhart, Ind., do you raise taxes during a recession? And he very eloquently, I think, answered the question. And he said, no, don’t do that. And he laid out the economic reasons for not doing that.

Now, look, this economy is begging for mercy. We’re at 9.2 percent unemployment. And I think it’s time to move off of this notion that somehow the remedy is to increase taxes on job-creators. Let’s focus in on these cuts. Let’s make thoughtful and wise cuts. And let’s come together on this in a fashion that makes sense all the way around.

GWEN IFILL: Listening to both sides of this debate, it seems like one man’s taxes are another man’s revenue increases. And it’s a question of whether you are talking about raising net taxes or raising — or not increasing revenues at all.

It’s — you can imagine that the average viewer trying to make sense of this doesn’t know which definition you are talking about.

REP. PETER ROSKAM: Well, here’s the definition I think that should be guiding us.

The Joint Committee on Taxation, which is a nonpartisan or a bipartisan entity here in the United States Congress, has said that 94 percent of all small businesses pay taxes at the individual income tax rate.

So, what does that mean? That means, when you raise the individual income tax rate, you are having an adverse impact. You’re raising taxes on job-creators. Half of all income in the United States or half of all revenues are coming from business taxes. So, this notion that we can somehow raise taxes on the very people that we want to put capital at risk, I think is a direction that the country has wholeheartedly rejected.

GWEN IFILL: The Democrats — or at least the president — has said that he is willing to make some trimming of benefits a part of this package

And that’s presumably affecting Social Security and Medicare, which has made some people in his party unhappy.

He said both sides should be willing to take significant heat. What significant heat are Republicans willing to accept?

REP. PETER ROSKAM: Well, the significant heat is raising the debt ceiling, accruing two more trillion dollars in debt, at a time when most Americans look at Washington, D.C. and say it is terribly disconnected to the reality of what they are dealing with in their own business and the reality of what they’re dealing with in their homes.

The notion of increasing the debt ceiling is a very unpleasant one.

GWEN IFILL: So you’re saying just the notion of increasing the debt ceiling is all that Republicans are willing to concede in this — in this compromise?

REP. PETER ROSKAM: What I’m saying is that Republicans are committed to making sure that small businesses don’t see a tax hike at a very time when job creation is something that we are so hungry for, and that they are interested in a game-changer.

In other words, the notion that we can borrow and spend our way into prosperity, I think, is a fool’s errand. It hasn’t worked. We have seen a stimulus bill where we’re 27 months out from a stimulus bill, and unemployment is still over nine percent. We’re 12 months out from the so-called recovery summer, and it’s been a miserable failure.

Let’s acknowledge the failure. Let’s move in a different direction, and let’s move forward.

GWEN IFILL: Here’s what I am missing, Congressman Roskam. You believe that the debt ceiling, that it would be a — do you believe that it would be a bad thing if the debt ceiling were not raised? And if you believe that, other than getting additional revenues, how do you do that?

REP. PETER ROSKAM: I think you deal with the types of cuts that House Republicans proposed and passed through the House of Representatives in April of this year, a very thoughtful pathway to prosperity, ultimately, that begins to make sense.

So, that’s where the lion’s share of the energy should be. I think that, if the president had devoted the same level of commitment and energy to cutting and those types of things and prioritizing that he has to raising taxes, I think we would be in a different position.

GWEN IFILL: And does that include benefits cuts, in your opinion?

REP. PETER ROSKAM: Well, we took on Medicare.

For example, we said let’s deal with folks who are basically in my age group. I’m 50 years old. Take ages 54 and below, and you come up with a different trajectory on Medicare. So, House Republicans have taken those tough votes and I think are prepared to stand by them.

GWEN IFILL: You say tough votes. One of the things the president said today is that a lot of members of Congress may not be willing to make a lot of tough votes in the next six months because of elections.

Do you see that — that argument at work behind the scenes, behind closed doors with the Republican Conference, that people are a little bit nervous about what is going to happen in the fall if they take these votes now?

REP. PETER ROSKAM: Well, I think, if the president could rethink it, he would want to shy away from actually arguing that you want to do what the public doesn’t want you to do.

In other words, is he saying that the closer you get to election, then that is going to really animate your behavior? I think what most Americans say is, they want Washington, D.C. to do the right thing, to do the right thing, whether it’s Nov. 1 or whether it’s any other time of the year.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Peter Roskam of Illinois, thank you so much.

REP. PETER ROSKAM: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Now we turn to your colleague, also from Illinois, Democrat Dick Durbin, a member of the Senate leadership. He also took part in the White House meeting this afternoon.

Welcome, Sen. Durbin.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, D-Ill. majority whip: Thank you. Good to be with you.

GWEN IFILL: You just heard what Congressman Roskam said about taxes. I want to take that head on right first of all, which is, is what the president is doing in these negotiations asking Republicans to raise taxes?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, of course, he is, because he listens to their list of things that they want to achieve.

I listened to it today, as Congressman Eric Cantor spelled out what he wants to achieve. He wants to raise the cost of student loans for young people from working families. He wants to raise the cost of Medicare for senior citizens. He wants to make it more difficult for hospitals that are providing medical care for the poorest people in America to be reimbursed.

So, what they are asking for is sacrifice from a lot of people who are struggling today, children of working families, elderly people and those who are providing for the poor among us. And the president is saying you cannot really in good conscience say you want the sacrifice from these people and then not ask the wealthiest among us to pay even a penny more in taxes. That is just not going to work politically, and it certainly isn’t fair.

GWEN IFILL: If you are a member of your constituency at home in Illinois, and you are watching two people who represent you in Congress having this discussion tonight, is there a basic common agreement that both of you have, or that each of you have, that all of you have about whether this debt ceiling vote needs to happen?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, I certainly believe it would be a disaster, an economic disaster, if we don’t extend the debt ceiling.

It would be the first time in the history of the United States that we have defaulted on our debt. I just say to homeowners across America, what would happen if you didn’t make your mortgage payments this month, and you went to refinance your mortgage next month? Basically, people would say, we’re not sure we want to loan you any money. And, if we do, it’s going to be at a higher interest rate.

That is what America faces if we follow the lead of people like Congresswoman Bachmann, who says it makes no difference; let’s just default on our debt for the first time.

They’re not thinking it through. We need a leadership that says, the American economy is fragile, recovering, but way too slowly. And for us to inflict this damage, this injury on our economy by not doing our job in Washington, that just isn’t the right thing to do.

GWEN IFILL: At what cost, Sen. Durbin? The Republicans are not very happy about the idea of revenue increases. And a lot of Democrats aren’t very happy about the idea of cutting benefits.

Where is the sweet spot here?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, I can tell you where I think it is, because I have been working on it for a year-and-a-half. It started with the Bowles-Simpson presidential deficit commission.

The answer is to put everything on the table, everything — I’m talking about spending, entitlements and revenue — to come up with a plan that really does reduce this debt in an honest way over a 10-year period of time, and to do it in a fair fashion. That’s the only thing that’s going to work here.

This idea that the Republicans are going to walk away again from a conversation about serious deficit reduction is just unacceptable. You may remember, this started two years ago, when we passed the deficit commission. We tried to on the floor. Seven Republican senators who co-sponsored it voted against it, and it failed.

It happened again when Eric Cantor, the Republican majority leader, walked out of the negotiations in the Biden bipartisan budget talks.

GWEN IFILL: But, Senator, I also remember hearing House Leader Nancy Pelosi saying that she wouldn’t accept any cuts in benefits which also you say and the president says have to be on the table.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, I can tell you that it is going to be a difficult task to sell any changes in Medicare or Social Security, or Medicaid, for that matter.

But I can tell you this, too. I think I speak for Nancy in this regard. I’m certainly speaking for myself. We’re not going to attack the basic benefit structure of these programs. That is what was wrong with the House Republican budget.

What I just heard here from my colleague from Illinois was to return to the House Republican budget. Do you know that imposed an additional $6,000-a-year cost in premium costs on Medicare recipients? Now, that may work for him. It may work for me. It’s not going to work for low-income seniors.

So when it comes to making changes in Medicare and Medicaid so they are stronger for a longer period of time, I can tell you the Democratic side of it is that we started these programs. We believe in them. We’re not going to let them go away.

GWEN IFILL: I asked Congressman Roskam what significant heat Republicans are willing to take. And he said simply the raising of the debt limit is significant heat.

What — what Republican — what significant heat are Democrats willing to take in order to come up with a compromise?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, first, let me say it is no heat to vote for a debt ceiling extension that is paying for a war which these Republicans have supported and want us to continue to be part of.

That, to me, is part of our responsibility. Now, what are Democrats prepared to accept? I think we need to be prepared to accept real reform when it comes to entitlement programs. I want to make Social Security stronger, beyond the 25 years that we expect it to be strong. I want it to be strong for 75 years.

I want to make sure that Medicare is — Medicare is there in eight years, paying to the people as promised in an efficient way, so that we provide quality medical care for seniors and the disabled. We can make these changes in entitlements and do it in a fashion that still preserves the basic benefits.

GWEN IFILL: Did you feel that you made any progress this afternoon?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: No, it was slow going this afternoon. The president listened carefully as the Republicans laid out their plan and, in the end, said the math just doesn’t add up. It doesn’t get to the numbers that you are suggesting.

So, we have got to come back tomorrow and look at this from a different perspective.

GWEN IFILL: And what about what the president said today about the politics of the fall campaigns? Is this something which you hear people talking about, concern, either whether Democrats don’t want to lose the issue or Medicare or Republicans don’t want to take votes which would hurt them?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Here is what I hear back home, first, jobs and the economy. People want to get back to work. They want to see the economy stronger and businesses doing well, secondly, that people feel very vulnerable.

A lot of folks are living paycheck to paycheck, barely getting by. And they want to make sure that Social Security is going to be there when it comes time for retirement, because they know they can’t count on their savings, and they sure can’t count on a pension plan from a company that is going bankrupt.

They want to make sure Medicare is going to be there, too, because Medicare is really their lifeline at a time in their life when insurance is the most expensive. So, they want us to make sure, at the end of the day, whatever changes we make, we preserve the basic benefit promises of those programs.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, thank you so much.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Thank you, too.