Debt-Ceiling Talks Press On

In less than four weeks, the U.S. government could go into default on some of its debts. President Obama has been spending a lot of time talking to lawmakers. On Thursday, he gathered Congress's top brass in a White House conference room to lay the groundwork for what he hopes will be a final deal, which would get the federal budget under control, and raise the debt limit before that default-deadline.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

People were frank. That was one of the stock phrases used as President Obama met with congressional leaders about raising the national debt ceiling.

MONTAGNE: Frank discussion is often a diplomatic euphemism for sharp disagreements. The nation could be close to defaulting on some of its obligations unless lawmakers find an agreement.

INSKEEP: And the resulting budget deal, if it comes, could affect almost every part of the government.

NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports on some of the ways people are straining to describe this story.

ANDREA SEABROOK: This is it. The endgame. Crunch time. Do or die. Whatever you call it, the pressure is palpable. The stakes seem sky-high.

So President Obama gathered the heavyweights at the White House yesterday: House Speaker John Boehner and his number two Republican Eric Cantor, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and her number two, Steny Hoyer - from the Senate, Democratic leader Harry Reid and Whip Dick Durbin, plus Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Whip Jon Kyl. They - plus the president and vice president - comprise America's top 10 politicians. They sat around one table for an hour and a half.

President BARACK OBAMA: People were frank. We discussed the various options available to us. Everybody reconfirmed the importance of completing our work and raising the debt limit ceiling so that the full faith and credit of the United States of America is not impaired.

SEABROOK: President Obama came to the press room immediately after most of the other players left the White House. None of them stopped at the driveway microphones to drop platitudes or left-handed compliments, as often happens. The president said the meeting was constructive, and explained what comes next. He said top staff from the Capitol and the White House will work now and through the weekend. The leaders will reconvene on Sunday.

Pres. OBAMA: With the expectation that, at that point, the parties will at least know where each other's bottom lines are and will hopefully be in a position to then start engaging in the hard bargaining that's necessary to get a deal done.

SEABROOK: Hard bargaining it will be. Republicans continue to stand by their ultimatum for a deal.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; Speaker of the House): Everything's on the table, except raising taxes on the American people.

SEABROOK: House Speaker John Boehner said his party won't budge on taxes. And top Democrats, like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, seem equally immovable on entitlement programs.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; House Minority Leader): We do not support cuts in benefits for Social Security and Medicare.

SEABROOK: Those programs will not be a piggy bank, she said, for giving tax cuts to the wealthiest people in the country. Now, here's the thing about those particular stipulations from the two sides: If negotiators are really going to go for the biggest deal they can get, what Mr. Obama calls the Grand Bargain, they're looking at some $4 trillion in savings over the coming 10 to 12 years. And to do that, shrink the budget that much, they've got to tackle almost everything in it, say most economists and analysts. That means the two parties' positions actually work against each other.

If they take tax increases out of the equation, they're more likely to have to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. If they take cuts to those programs out of the equation, they're more likely to have to raise taxes. That's why so many economists and businesspeople are calling on both sides to drop their ultimatums.

And one more thing: Even if they were to drop them, it's no sure thing that each party's rank-and-file will be okay with that. President Obama's hope is that Congress will recognize the need to share the pain all around. But it seems just as likely that most lawmakers could look at that deal and run screaming in the other direction.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.

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