Late flurry, new ire on a debt deal
Democrats say plan should add revenue
WASHINGTON - President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner raced to nail down a last-minute deal yesterday that would deeply cut government programs and possibly restructure the nation’s tax code, but anxious Senate Democrats insisted any plan must contain some immediate revenue increases.
Details of a plan to cut roughly $3 trillion from the deficit’s growth over the next decade were still being negotiated. Such a deal would be tied to a vote to raise the nation’s debt limit before the government defaults on some of its obligations in 11 days.
Initial responses to some elements of the plan, however, were worrisome for negotiators. Senate Democrats emerged from a combative hourlong meeting with Jacob Lew, the White House budget director, angry over the possibility that a final plan would be tilted too far toward budget cuts and not include enough new revenues.
“The president always talked about balance; there had to be some fairness in this, this can’t be all cuts,’’ Senate majority leader Harry Reid told reporters as he emerged from the meeting. “The caucus agrees with that. I hope the president agrees with that, and I’m confident he will.’’
Senators also expressed frustration that they’ve been kept in the dark as Obama and Boehner negotiated. “You can’t ask us to vote when we haven’t been part of the deal,’’ said Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, saying the anger during parts of the meeting “was like Mount Vesuvius.’’
After news of his talks with Boehner leaked out, Obama met for two hours at the White House last night with top House and Senate Democrats. Boehner plans to huddle this morning with House Republicans.
Obama is also taking his approach directly to the public today, with a town hall meeting on the deficit at the University of Maryland. He also wrote an opinion piece that was published last night on the website of USA Today. “I’m willing to cut historic amounts of spending in order to reduce our long-term deficits,’’ he wrote. “I’m willing to cut spending on domestic programs to the lowest level in half a century.’’
News of the Democrats’ dissent further complicates the mission for negotiators, who face a Herculean task to forge a deal on politically dicey issues before the nation’s debt clock runs out. It was thought that the critical vote on any such deal would be in the House, given the hardened position against revenue increases among conservative Republicans. Yet, any united opposition by Democrats in the Senate could also scuttle a deal, which would need the support of 60 senators to break filibusters.
Senator John Kerry urged the White House, both publicly and privately, to drop plans for an immediate overarching compromise and proceed with a more basic deal that would allow the debt limit to be increased in return for some immediate budget cuts and pledges to soon reform the tax code.
“We’ve got to get off the dime here and get onto a single plan that we’re working on to get this done properly in the next few days,’’ the Massachusetts Democrat said. “The notion that you’re going to have some big thing that’s agreed upon between either the White House or some Republicans or whatever, and everybody’s going to say ‘OK that’s it,’ and it involves massive cuts . . . I have a problem with that.’’
Kerry made a pitch for a fall-back plan, crafted by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and Reid, to give Obama the power to raise the government’s borrowing limit without explicit congressional approval. That plan is ready to be voted on - “it’s sitting on a shelf as the last resort,’’ said a McConnell spokesman - but it has been widely disparaged by House Republicans because it does not explicitly include spending cuts, leaving its passage in doubt.
The activity capped a furious day of closed-door meetings, with lawmakers shuttling in and out of congressional offices with an eye toward a tight Aug. 2 deadline, when the government will exceed its $14.3 trillion borrowing limit and begin to default on its obligations. But with so many different scenarios - and opposition to each plan coming from various quarters - a pathway toward legislation that could clear Congress was highly in doubt.
Yet even the fact that Boehner and Obama were progressing toward a deal was significant. The two leaders had been in negotiations earlier this month, but those talks collapsed after House Republicans balked over letting the George W. Bush-era tax cuts lapse for the richest 2 percent of Americans, among other tax issues.
Where the latest negotiations were heading was difficult to determine. Congressional sources said the discussions were in the range of $3 trillion in cuts to the deficit over the next 10 years. But it was unclear whether and when any tax changes would be addressed. It was also unclear whether it would address the Bush tax cuts.
“Everything is wide open and fluid. What we hear mostly is that nothing’s agreed until everything’s agreed,’’ said Representative John Tierney, a Salem Democrat. “Everybody’s keeping their escape hatches open.’’
Boehner predicted yesterday that House Republicans would ultimately vote on a compromise plan. “At the end of the day, we have a responsibility to act,’’ he said. When asked whether House Republicans would be unwilling to compromise he said, “I’m sure we’ve got some members who believe that, but I do not believe that would be anywhere close to the majority.’’
Meanwhile, Massachusetts congressional Democrats began criticizing another plan that had been gaining traction in the Senate. That proposal, crafted by a bipartisan group of six senators, would involve a tax code rewrite coupled with budget cuts, including changes to cherished entitlement programs.
“The recommendations put forward by The Gang of Six are nonstarters,’’ said Representative Edward J. Markey, the Malden Democrat. “Draconian proposals that undermine the promise of Social Security for future generations or gut Medicare and Medicaid are not acceptable.’’
Representative Michael Capuano, a Somerville Democrat, also criticized the proposal for both its vagueness and its proposed changes to Social Security and Medicaid. “My initial reaction is I don’t like it,’’ he said. “I don’t have one one-hundredth of the information I need to make a decision.’’
Senator Scott Brown, the only Republican in the Massachusetts delegation, hasn’t yet taken a firm position. “Senator Brown is reviewing the various proposals that are out there,’’ said spokeswoman Marcie Kinzel.
In a puzzling decision, the House is planning to adjourn today and take the weekend off as the Senate planned to be in session. Reid went to the Senate floor and criticized the decision.
“It is just untoward - and that’s the kindest word I can say - for the House of Representatives to be out this weekend,’’ Reid said. “What a bad picture that shows this country.’’
Boehner, while walking down a congressional hallway following a press conference, ignored a reporter’s questions about why they were not planning to work through the weekend. Instead, he broke into song.
“Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-day,’’ he sang with a smile. “My oh my, what a wonderful day.’’
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel later said in a statement that the House had already passed its plan - which would cut current spending, cap future spending, and include a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget.
The Senate is expected to reject that plan, as soon as today.
Reid said it was “perhaps some of the worst legislation in the history of this country.’’
Theo Emery of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of incorrect information provided by the Associated Press, an earlier photo caption accompanying this story misidentified the home state of Senator Rand Paul. He represents Kentucky.