WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sharply intensified pressure on congressional Republicans in negotiations over the federal debt, depicting GOP leaders as supporting tax breaks for jet-setting corporate executives at the expense of college scholarships and medical research.
Obama’s decision to chastise GOP leaders in an hour-long televised news conference Wednesday moved the debt talks out of the realm of closed-door Washington meetings and into full public view, setting off a high-stakes effort to mobilize public opinion.
Obama and Republicans have been locked for more than a month in a confrontation over raising the nation’s borrowing limit. Republicans have insisted they will not approve the increase unless
Obama and congressional Democrats agree to reduce the debt in the long term. But last week, top Republicans pulled out of discussions with Vice President Joe Biden, objecting to a White House demand that any deal include additional revenue as well as spending cuts.
The news conference represented a rare use of the presidential megaphone for Obama as he defended his position. In the past, the president has been prone to delivering lengthy answers in a professorial tone, relying on abstract ideas. By contrast, Obama on Wednesday laid out his arguments in simple, everyday terms, echoing an ex-president he has been studying: Ronald Reagan.
“These are bills that Congress ran up,” Obama said in expressing why the U.S. mustn’t default on its debt obligations. “They took the vacation. They bought the car. Now they’re saying, ‘Maybe we don’t have to pay.’ ”
Obama chided lawmakers for taking frequent recesses instead of staying in Washington to finish work on the debt question, going so far as to add that his two young daughters exhibit more diligence in doing their homework than Congress has shown.
Houses may shun recess
“They don’t wait until the night before,” he said. “They’re not pulling all-nighters. Congress can do the same thing.”
Reacting to the criticism, senators considered abandoning a week-long July Fourth recess, and House leaders said they would stay in session until negotiations were finished.
But Republican leaders offered scant hope of a shift on the issue of tax revenues.
“The president is sorely mistaken if he believes a bill to raise the debt ceiling and raise taxes would pass the House,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
In the Senate, Republicans began a push to amend the Constitution to require a balanced budget, insisting the government cannot get out from under crushing debt without one.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., characterized the amendment as a “good first step” toward achieving long-term budget stability. “We think it’s pretty clear, regardless of what we’re able to negotiate here in the short term, that we should put the federal government in this kind of fiscal straitjacket so that we do not get in this position again,” he said.
Among the GOP rank and file, however, some indicated they would consider new revenue sources, posing a potential challenge to party unity.
“I’m not too sympathetic to all these jets myself, so I’d be willing to consider that,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Budget Committee.
Jet tax break criticized
Others said it would depend on which loophole was being eliminated. “I’m willing to take a look at the special deals,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. “I would love to do away with special tax breaks, but not legitimate business deductions.”
Several times in the news conference, Obama cited the high-profile tax break offered to owners of corporate jets, even though it would bring in only an estimated $3 billion over 10 years. Other Democratic proposals would net $41 billion over 10 years by tightening oil and gas tax credits and $21 billion by eliminating credits for hedge-fund managers.
The largest Democratic tax proposal would limit the deductions that may be claimed by those earning more than $500,000 a year. In all, the White House said earlier this year that it wants $760 billion in new revenue over 10 years.
With the Fourth of July weekend coming up, the Obama administration will send top officials to appear on television to echo the president’s message and build a consensus behind what Obama calls a “balanced” approach to deficit reduction. Gene Sperling, the president’s top economic adviser, will be one of those leading the push.
The government reached the limit of its borrowing ability in May, and federal officials warn that maneuvers to continue paying the nation’s bills will be exhausted by Aug. 2, risking a default on federal obligations.
Underscoring the concerns, the International Monetary Fund warned in a report Wednesday that failure by Congress to raise the borrowing limit could result in “a severe shock to the economy and world financial markets.”
Nonetheless, many Republicans regard the administration’s warnings as a scare tactic and refuse to raise the debt ceiling without major reductions in the nation’s deficit, chiefly through spending cuts.
The Washington Post contributed to this report.