Debt Ceiling Talks...Endless Game Of Give And Take?

President Obama speaks during a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House.

President Obama speaks during a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Sunday's meeting between President Obama and Republican and Democratic lawmakers did not produce a budget deal. As the August 2nd deadline looms, Obama said this morning that he will not accept temporary fixes, and will meet with Congressional leaders every day until both parties agree on a plan that would keep the U.S. from defaulting. Host Michel Martin discusses the debt talks and Obama's morning speech with The Atlanta Journal Constitution's Cynthia Tucker, and U.S. News & World Report's Mary Kate Cary.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, the man who calls himself America's toughest sheriff looks to prove it at an unlikely location, baseball's All Star game. Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona's Maricopa County says he is going to bring chain gangs to work outside tomorrow's game in Phoenix. We'll talk with the mayor of Phoenix about that in a few minutes. But first we look at why negotiators work on trimming the deficit and raising the debt ceiling are still at it.

Working the weekend apparently did not help President Obama and Republican congressional leaders come to an agreement on the budget, at least not yet. On Saturday, Speaker of the House John Boehner of Ohio called the president to say that his fellow Republicans would not support a plan to reduce the deficit by four trillion dollars if the blueprint included tax increases. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that the president's deficit reduction plan was just the latest in a long line of bad economic ideas.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL: If you look back the last two and a half years, you see the government running banks, insurance companies, car companies, nationalizing the student loan business, taking over our healthcare, trying to take over the Internet, increasing spending, discretionary spending 24 percent, increasing debt 35 percent. How big a government do we want?

MARTIN: If the parties don't break the deadlock, that could stall efforts to increase the debt ceiling and that could lead to the U.S. defaulting on its 14.3 trillion dollar debt. We wanted to take a closer look at some of the key points so we've called upon two of our trusted political guides, Cynthia Tucker, a blogger and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. She's here with us in our Washington, DC studios. Welcome back Cynthia.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Thanks Michel.

MARTIN: Also with us, Mary Kate Cary. She is a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. She's also a former speech writer for former President George H.W. Bush. Welcome back to you also, Mary Kate.

MARY KATE CARY: Thanks.

MARTIN: So tell us, Mary Kate, why did Speaker Boehner decide that they couldn't go forward with the $4 trillion package, that he said that the Republicans wanted to go for something more modest? I mean, I thought the Republicans were the ones saying that they wanted to be bold, be big, do something big?

CARY: I think everybody in town wants to do something bold and big. My understanding is the reason that he pulled out was because of a trillion dollars in new taxes. What he was interested in was real tax reform that eliminated loopholes in return for lower tax rates across the board, which the president says he still interested in doing but unfortunately there was a trillion dollars of tax increases in there as well.

MARTIN: Well, what's the difference really? I mean, isn't this a nomenclature problem? I mean the Democrats are calling those closing tax loopholes as well so...

CARY: I think the new taxes were the elimination of the Bush tax cuts all the way down to $200,000, is what I think was going on. It's very hard, as you saw this morning, the newspapers, there's not a lot of news about what's being said and what's going on, so there's a lot of reading of the tea leaves. But the fact that he backed away from that says to me he knew there was a problem on the right with tax increases, which is absolutely off the table on the right because of the employment numbers that came out on Friday.

A much worse situation than it was even a month ago and gross is now below 2 percent. The feeling on the right is if we increase taxes the economy's going to just stop cold and they don't want to be part of that.

MARTIN: Cynthia, how do you read the tea leaves?

TUCKER: Well, I disagree with Mary Kate about what's going on on the right. The Republicans are absolutely intransigent on any revenue increases whether they reflect the economy or not. If the new economic numbers had shown unemployment had dropped to 7 percent, the Republicans would still be intransigent. They have adopted absolutely no revenue increases as part of their fundamental tenets now. It is highly irresponsible.

Polls show that most Americans support tax increases on the affluent. What would be wrong, for heaven's sake, with closing the tax loophole for people who own corporate jets? Do you mean to tell me they can't afford to pay a little bit more? Of course they can.

CARY: (unintelligible)

TUCKER: But, well, John Boehner may be, but there are people in this caucus who are absolutely opposed to that.

MARTIN: Who do you think has the mandate at this point? Because one of the things that each side is relying on, they're both citing both economic philosophy and the politics of how they got there. I mean, you know, Mr. Cantor - Eric Cantor the...

TUCKER: Majority leader.

MARTIN: ...the majority leader on the Republican side in the House says that he's not arguing the politics, its economic philosophy. They just think it's bad policy.

TUCKER: Um-hum.

MARTIN: On the Democratic side they're arguing the same thing. They're saying a government shutdown, disastrous, the kinds of drastic cuts and domestic discretionary spending that they say the Republicans want, that the Republicans do say that they want. They say it's bad economic policy because you'll take more money out of the economy by the very people who are most likely to spend it.

But so - so that's the substance of it, but what about the politics of it, Cynthia? Who do you think has the mandate?

TUCKER: Well, Michel, you can never divorce the politics from the matter when politicians are speaking, so there are certainly politics on both sides. Politically, Democrats don't want to talk about Medicare cuts because they believe that that is a powerful political tool for them to bash Republicans with in the elections next year, in 2012. Politically, I am not sure Republican voters are that opposed to any tax increases. I'm not sure that's true, but there are Republican activists who are very much opposed to any tax increase, including closing the loopholes for big petroleum companies, closing the loopholes on people who own corporate jets. And the leader of that faction is Grover Norquist, who says absolutely no revenue increases of any sort. So the mandate that Republican caucus members believe they are hearing comes from people like Grover Norquist, who are very loud in insisting that they're...

CARY: Oh, I don't know about that.

TUCKER: ...won't be any tax increases at all.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the budget talks at the White House aimed at cutting federal spending, reducing the budget deficit, and hopefully raising the debt ceiling before the deadline at which point the U.S. would be in default. We're speaking with Cynthia Tucker. That's who you just heard. She's a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Atlanta Journal Constitution. Also with us, Mary Kate Cary, columnist and blogger for U. S. News and World Report, also a former presidential speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. Mary Kate, you were saying you don't know about that. I don't know about that.

CARY: I don't know if I'm buying that. The thing that - it's bigger than Grover Norquist. You have a number of presidential candidates out on the stump drawing big crowds, getting big applause when they say I'm not in favor of raising the debt ceiling, I'm not in favor of new taxes. Last night on CNN I was watching all the run-up to this tonight and they kept showing the debt clock. People understand the debt clock just spinning out of control.

The fact is that even after even - if they got the four trillion dollar deal, the government is still going to increase in size and people understand that. They understand what a balanced budget amendment is. If you are in favor of raising taxes, you're in favor of feeding the beast and keeping it bigger and bigger.

MARTIN: So Mary Kate, who do you think has the mandate here politically? And I'm not diminishing the substance of it.

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: But as Cynthia pointed out, the two are in line, because on the president's side, on the Democratic side, you know, a lot of progressives are saying, you know, outraged about even the discussion which the president has said he's opened the door...

CARY: Right, yes.

MARTIN: ...to changes in Social Security and Medicare. So who's got the mandate?

CARY: I think the mandate is with the Republicans. You had 64 seats in a landslide just last fall. Many of them won on a pledge of not raising taxes. You've got the presidential candidates out there, and keep in mind that the last Democratic Congress before they left office voted to extend the Bush tax cuts, so it's unfair to ask the Republicans to raise the taxes after the Democratic Congress just cut it.

On the other hand, Obama needs a deal more than the Republicans do. He's got unemployment going up. He's got growth going down. He's got majorities in polls saying he's handling the economy poorly. He needs a deal. He's seen as leading from behind until about a week ago, and he needs to turn this thing around. His own budget was rejected in the Senate. He's got to get some street cred before the fall.

MARTIN: Very briefly, Cynthia, 'cause we want to save just a minute to talk about former first lady Betty Ford who left us this weekend. And so Mary Kate, I just want to give you a minute to talk about her, if you would. Cynthia, Mary Kate's saying the president needs a deal more than the Republicans do. Agree or disagree?

CARY: I disagree with that. I think the fact that the president has been willing to put Social Security and Medicare on the table shows the American people that he is willing to meet the Republicans not just halfway, but three-fourths of the way. And they have refused to give an inch. Again, they won't even close loopholes on people who own corporate jets. So I think Obama can go back to the American people and say, I tried very hard, but the Republicans are unwilling to give even a quarter of an inch.

MARTIN: But does that matter if the government defaults? Doesn't everybody have egg on their faces? (unintelligible) everybody?

CARY: So this is bad for everybody. Absolutely. But the Republicans will be blamed as much as the White House.

TUCKER: (unintelligible) But I think works for Obama.

MARTIN: But then divided Congress, then it flips again and you've got maybe a Republican president and a Democratic Congress. It's, like, throw all the bums out and get different bums?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: We're all in trouble unless this dysfunctional act begins to function again.

MARTIN: Finally, before we go, Mary Kate, I just wanted to give a minute to you to talk a little bit about Betty Ford, wife of former president Gerald Ford. She died on Friday at the age of 93. Such an important figure.

CARY: Amazing.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit about her, please?

CARY: Amazing. The last time I saw her was at Gerry Ford's funeral, which by itself was a great moment, to look back on both of them - people of great integrity. What she went through, that was really the beginning of people talking publicly about breast cancer for the first time. First time people started talking about addiction in public. She really opened the gates to a lot of cultural changes, I think, in our country, for the better. And was just a real person. And beloved by many, I think.

MARTIN: Do Republican women still admire her?

CARY: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: I know that she was an important role model, not just for Republican women, but as you mentioned, for talking about addiction, for talking about, you know, subsequent public figures, particularly women have struggled with addiction have often credited her with making it easier to come forward and to address their problems.

CARY: Sure. She removed the stigma.

MARTIN: But do you think she's still a role model?

CARY: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: Just because so much of the energy and heat used to be on the conservative women like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, they sort of get all the attention right now. And she was a moderate. She clearly was.

CARY: Yeah. She was. I think she paved the way for a lot of other women and set a new model for first ladies.

MARTIN: Cynthia, final thought?

TUCKER: For women of a certain age, she's very much still a role model. And even women who don't know what she did have drawn inspiration from her, the legacy she left.

MARTIN: Well, thank you both so much. Cynthia Tucker is a blogger and Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Mary Kate Cary is a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report, as well as a former presidential speech writer. They both have been blogging about these talks that are ongoing - relate to both their blogs. They're both here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Ladies, thank you both so much.

CARY: Thanks for having us.

TUCKER: Thanks, Michel.

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