Obama To Congress: 'Do The Right Thing,' Make Deal
NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The president, the vice president and Congressional leaders are meeting in the White House this hour as the clock ticks down to default. This morning, the president declared he's willing to take significant political heat from his party to reach a deficit reduction deal and expects Republicans to do the same.
His idea of a balanced agreement includes cuts to Medicare and Social Security that Democrats would find hard to swallow and tax increases that Republicans utterly reject. The shared political pain would be worth it, the president argues, to reach a grand bargain to cut four trillion from the deficit over the next 10 years.
Over the weekend, John Boehner, the speaker of the House, said Republicans will not support such an agreement and called for a smaller deal, two trillion or so, but that agreement appears to be no closer than the big one.
The whole debate alienates the conservative wing in the GOP and the liberal flank of the Democratic Party. If you vote in your party's primary, what do you want your member of Congress to do? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, media critic Howard Kurtz on the tactics of tabloid journalism, but first the debt ceiling. We're joined here in Studio 3A by NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Nice to have you on the program as always, Ron.
RON ELVING: Good to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: And did the president say anything new today?
ELVING: The president did not say anything terribly new today. The newness about today would be the circumstances of the president's remarks. He is saying what he's been saying for some while, and John Boehner, who came out a little bit later and spoke for about - and took questions for about eight minutes, said much what he had said in the past.
The circumstance that has changed is that what appeared to be an effort toward that big deal, $4 trillion over 10 years, has apparently collapsed over the weekend, and John Boehner was explaining that in his view nothing had really changed. He had always said he was against any kind of tax increases, there may have been some misunderstanding, but that there were not votes in the House for the kind of deal that at least the White House's description implied was in negotiation between Obama and Boehner.
So we are hearing essentially things that we have heard many times. I'm sure the average listener straining to hear anything a little bit new is a little disappointed. But the truth is that what's changed is that the effort that was made during last week has apparently come to naught.
And there's some kabuki here. So I'm trying to add the word apparently. It seems to have come to naught, and we will see where we go from here. There had been hope we would get a deal this week, and they would be able to write something into law over the days between July 15 and August 2, but you know, it would be easier to make the case that we're further away from a deal than we were a week or two ago than to say we were closer.
CONAN: If you look at the congressional mathematics, there are some amongst the Republican majority in the House of Representatives who will not vote to increase the debt ceiling under almost any condition.
ELVING: Eighty to 100 is one estimate that I've heard. I don't know what the actual number is, and we - probably not a knowable number.
CONAN: So they will need some Democrats if that bill is going to go through, whatever it is. In the Senate, there are 53 Democrats. Anything important in the Senate needs 60 votes. So you're going to need at least seven Republicans in the United States Senate. We have divided government, as the president points out today. Nobody is going to get everything they want.
ELVING: No one would seem to be likely to get everything they want. But whichever of these two sides more successfully games the negotiations will get more of what it wants, is my guess. We've seen this before. We have seen many negotiations in the past between Republicans and Democrats, between the House and the Senate.
And by the way, those are four different groups of people in a very real sense. The House Republicans are not the Senate Republicans, et cetera. These negotiations wind up, when they come to the brink, with one side or the other yielding in some important way, and even if you perfectly nuance it and get everyone to give up equal amounts, the perception that then takes over, over time, can be quite surprising and often quite devastating.
Take the budget deal of 1990, which was thought to be a balanced deal by many at the time. President George H.W. Bush, the first President Bush, thought it was going to help him get re-elected to have put together such a great deal in the summer of 1990, even though there were a lot of House Republicans, especially, against it, and they voted it down once.
He thought it was really going to help him politically. A lot of Democrats thought it was going to help him politically, and in the end it brought on the challenge from Pat Buchanan, it brought on a big rebellion by a lot of anti-tax Republicans, probably had something to do with Ross Perot's strength in 1992, and labeled him the guy who violated his no-new-taxes pledge.
So the perception of that deal in 1990 turned out to be quite different from what the perceived reality at the moment of the deal had been.
CONAN: The one thing the president said everybody does agree on is the debt ceiling - at least the leadership - the debt ceiling does need to be raised. There seems to be these two diametrically opposed camps, or you can say both sides have painted themselves into opposite corners, and as we saw in a quote about the government shutdown in Minnesota, that every once in a while a game of chicken - well, they don't blink at the end and reach an agreement, it turns out to be a car crash.
ELVING: Yes, and we are seeing something of a car crash in Minnesota, but I think we can all observe, in the case in Minnesota, that not only have they had the car crash, but now that the car crash has happened, they continue to drive at each other.
They are both continuing to blame the other side, and attempts that have been made in some degree by bipartisan elements of the Minnesota political scene to broker some kind of compromise have not been successful and have not even really been taken very seriously.
So we have to look at the political situation in the larger context of the summer of 2011 and say we may not have the kind of politics we had in 1990, when we got a big deal. We may not have the kind of politics that we had in 1996 when President Clinton worked together with a Republican House, a Republican Senate, on a number of large bills, including the welfare overhaul.
We may not have the kind of politics we had for some of the budget deals and compromises we've seen over the last 10 years. So we're in a new world. We're in the post-election of 2010 world. And the government shutdown negotiations that kept the government open in March and April are not regarded kindly by many of the activists on the right.
Many Tea Party people feel they were snookered in that deal. They didn't get the budget cuts they wanted as fast as they wanted them, and they're bringing those concerns to this negotiation and holding John Boehner's feet to the fire.
CONAN: Some people on the left weren't happy with that either. They wanted those Bush tax cuts rescinded for the wealthiest among us too. In any case, let's bring a couple of other voices into the conversation. And let me introduce Matt Continetti. He's with us here in Studio 3A, opinion editor for the Weekly Standard. Always nice to have you on the program with us, Matt.
MATT CONTINETTI: Thanks for having me, Neal.
CONAN: And also with us here in Studio 3A is Michael Ettlinger. He's the vice president for economic policy at the Center for American Progress. And thanks for joining us.
MICHAEL ETTLINGER: Appreciate it.
CONAN: And just to start with Matt Continetti, was it a good idea for Speaker Boehner to seemingly embrace the idea of the grand bargain and then pull the plug on it over the weekend?
CONTINETTI: Well, like Ron referred earlier, there's a lot of shadow boxing and kabuki theater going on. And I think Boehner is open to a large deal, just as the president is, knowing that there are certain red lines that he won't cross, just like there are certain lines the president won't cross.
So you know, all these deals remember, we had the Gang of Six that failed, and we had the Biden talks, and Eric Cantor walked out of that, and then we have this new round of talks, and then all of a sudden the White House says no, we want...
CONAN: The Big Eight, yes.
CONTINETTI: Right, well - and remember, even these eight talks started out with a smaller deal, the $2.4 trillion deal. Then the White House says, well, we want the $4 trillion deal. Now it's back to the 2.4 trillion, and we might not even get any deal at all.
So until it actually, you know, comes down to the wire, I don't think any of us have really any idea when it's going to happen.
CONAN: Well, in any negotiation, nothing is final until everything is final. But what is - are taxes completely off the table?
CONTINETTI: Well, you look it from a Republican legislative perspective, right - if you're a House Republican or even a Senate Republican, you had the election of 2010, which was - Republicans ran on a small-government platform of, you know, keep taxes where they are and reduce the size of government. And they won big. In fact, they won a historic victory in terms of the history of the Republican Party.
So then you have in December of 2010, when a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president agreed to maintain the current tax rates through 2012. And so if you're a House Republican, why on earth would you say now, only six months, you know, seven months after that agreement: Well, you're right. We'll give them up. Especially considering - you know, Ron also mentioned the 1990 budget deal.
And you saw what happened there, where George Bush's broken promise ended up with a lot of - with a primary challenge. And all these Tea Party candidates, of course, many of them primaried Republicans who had voted for the last big bipartisan bill, which was the TARP in 2008. So that's a red line, taxes.
CONAN: And let's bring Michael Ettlinger into the conversation here. Are cuts to Social Security, Medicare, off the table for most Democrats?
ETTLINGER: Well, no. I mean, I think that, you know, there's a real distinction here, sort of, you know, this has been portrayed by a lot of people as, well, the Republicans are going to have to give on taxes, and the Democrats are going to have to give on entitlements, and they're both, you know, being absolutely rigid on that.
But in truth, you know, the president has signaled that he's willing to look at entitlements, including Social Security, which is probably the harder thing to touch. And yes, there are many Democrats who draw a hard line on Social Security. But you know, I think Medicare has already been touched in the Affordable Care Act, and in fact one of the things Matt didn't mention that many, particularly House Republicans, ran on was criticizing the president for cutting Medicare.
So you know, I actually think we sort of - there's one side who's being absolutely rigid and doctrinaire, to the point where, you know, closing loopholes on corporate jets are even off the table and things like that, whereas the other side is actually, you know, willing to engage and has some flexibility.
There's a line they won't cross, but...
CONAN: Former Speaker Pelosi, still the Democratic leader in the House, said no cuts to Medicare benefits.
ETTLINGER: Right, and she and, and - but there are ways to cut spending on Medicare without it being cuts in benefits. There's a lot of room within that.
ETTLINGER: And she doesn't speak for every Democrat as well.
CONAN: Well, she's the leader, but we think that that means something. But do you see the prospect for compromise here?
ETTLINGER: I think - I mean, I think there's various paths this could take, as particularly Ron was saying. There's many different ways this could play out. I, you know, I think there is room for compromise. I think we will raise the debt limit. So by definition, if I think that, I think there's going to be some sort of compromise at it.
CONAN: Which will include taxes?
ETTLINGER: I think it will probably include some taxes. It depends on the scope of the deal. You know, I think there is a shorter-term deal that's possible without taxes. I think that would be a mistake, but I think that that's...
CONAN: Shorter-term, another - requiring another vote before the election?
ETTLINGER: Not necessarily. But also, more important than shorter term, a smaller deal. I mean, you can have a smaller deal that loads up this with less in terms of deficit reduction and just extends the debt limit, and that, that - you know, is much easier.
CONAN: The sound you hear is a can being kicked down the road. Stay with us. We're talking about the push for a deal in Washington to cut the deficit and raise the debt ceiling. If you vote in your party's primary, what do you want your member of Congress to do? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Before he headed to the White House for talks with President Obama this afternoon, House Speaker John Boehner told reporters that yes, he agrees with the president that the debt limit needs to be raised but also said the White House is not serious enough about overhauling Social Security and Medicare.
He also said the House Republicans will not back any deal that raises taxes. Speaker Boehner is pushing for a smaller, $2 trillion deal or thereabouts. President Obama wants something more along the lines of $4 trillion in savings over the next 10 years and promises to meet with leaders from both parties every day until they can come to agreement.
All of this as the Treasury warns the country is three weeks from default. If you vote in your party's primaries, what do you want your member of Congress to do? 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. Our guests are Ron Elving, who is NPR senior Washington editor; Matt Continetti, opinion editor of the Weekly Standard; and Michael Ettlinger, the vice president for economic policy at the Center for American Progress. And let's start with Jane(ph), and Jane's with us from Morrison in Colorado.
CONAN: Hi, Jane, go ahead please.
JANE: Yeah, I'm - I participate in our local caucus, and I vote in the primaries, as well. And it just seems to me that...
CONAN: In which party, Jane?
JANE: Well, I'm registered as Republican, and so I participate in that caucus and primary. I don't vote a strict party line, though. And I just really feel like the parties are fighting against each other and not necessarily for the American people.
I am fine with them raising taxes as long as we start paying for the things that we really need, like education and other things like that, that we're falling so far behind in this country in education and other areas. And it's time we step up and pay for those things.
CONAN: Thank you very much, Jane, appreciate the phone call. Matt Continetti, a Republican or Republican primary voter who says we need to raise taxes as long as they are directed towards the right things, and she emphasizes education. We're seeing education cuts being imposed all across the country.
CONTINETTI: And I would advise Jane to vote in the Democratic primary next cycle because the views that I heard from her are more in line with that. The Republican Party is going in exactly the opposite direction and has been since the financial crisis and the recession in 2008.
And they don't want to pay any more money. They think that the tax rates that we have now, we're getting about 14 percent GDP right now, which is...
CONAN: The lowest percentage, I think, since 1950 or something like that.
CONTINETTI: A lot of that is the economic recession, as well. The same rates in the middle of the decade were making about 18 percent. So they think it's just a question of spending, and they see a surge in spending, and they want it to stop. And that's where we have - that's where we're coming.
And this is why I'm very skeptical of a deal being reached is I just think the two parties are highly ideological, have become more ideological over the past few election cycles as a result of the cascading losses, first on the Republican side in two cycles, then on the Democratic side in the last cycle.
And they both have extremely different priorities about where the country should go in the future. And that makes me, like I say, skeptical that they can agree on an increase in the debt ceiling this time around.
CONAN: Let's go next to Steve(ph), Steve on the line from San Francisco.
STEVE: Hi, Neal, thanks for taking my call. My take, if you don't mind, I'll point to it real quickly, is that the compromise under Bush 1 may have been a loss of sorts looking at the '92 presidential election. Clinton did get elected.
But, you know, for a lot of reasons, I think a Republican agenda, you know, that included NAFTA, welfare reform, increasing privatization, you know, that all worked to the Republicans' advantage, as did the, you know, the real growth of a coalition that now dominates the Republican Party.
And I think that happened in part because the ideological purity resonates with the base, and...
CONAN: And which party do you vote in, Steve?
STEVE: I'm a Democrat, and I vote Democratic. I see that under Obama, pharma, banking, big ag, the military-industrial complex all have gotten their - they've all gotten a share of the pie. But the unions, the unemployed, the young, kids who need education, now that, you know, they're the ones who stand to benefit the most from either continued government investment or in particular growth in government investment, they're being told hey, there is no more.
And, you know, the Bush tax cuts have been extended. Jackie Speier, my rep, I'm going to ask her to stand with the progressive caucus, not give in. And if there's a default, you know, it's not, again, the Democratic base that stands to lose. You know, the strength of the...
CONAN: Doesn't everybody - I'm sorry, Steve, just listening to the economists, doesn't everybody stand to lose?
STEVE: I don't think so, I really don't. Maybe short-term, yeah, there'll be some losses, but unless we have a party that stops giving in to this ideological - I mean even David Brooks calls almost a religious belief that you can have a government without some kind of revenue-generating capacity.
I mean, I live in the state of California, and we're still trying to figure out how to get out from under a Prop 13 that, you know, is seen generally as some kind of an extension of grandmothers who would otherwise be taxed out of their homes but actually provides incredible tax incentives, you know, to commercial establishments who are paying tax rates based on property valuations that are, you know, almost 30 years old.
CONAN: Steve, I just wanted...
STEVE: You know, (unintelligible) some backbone.
CONAN: Okay, thank you very much, Steve, appreciate the phone call. And Michael Ettlinger, I think he speaks for some substantial part of the Democratic Party. Just last week, when President Obama started talking about the grand bargain, got emails from moveon.org saying there would be fewer contributions and fewer workers for any Democrat who might support such an idea.
ETTLINGER: Well, I think there's a lot of frustration out there because, you know, Matt was saying that both sides are ideological. But on the other hand, you know, you look at the Democratic side, honestly, you know, if saying that you're willing to touch Social Security, but you want to preserve it as a solid benefit based on its - the way it's run in the past, you want to keep Medicare even though you're willing to look at it for some savings - if that's an ideological position, they're ideological.
But I don't think of that as a strongly ideological position, and I think one of the things that sort of weakened the hand from a Democratic standpoint is you do have, you know, these 80, however many ideological Republicans who are saying: You know what? We'll let the debt limit - we'll keep the debt limit the same. We'll cause default. And we don't care because we're going to hold out for our things. But you don't see Democrats doing that...
CONAN: On the other hand, doesn't that give Democrats in the House power? In other words, John Boehner is going to need Democratic votes. He's going to have to get some Democrats aboard, thereby give them something they can vote for.
ETTLINGER: No, absolutely, that could - but I think what's happened is that the no-tax line in particular has infected beyond those 80 to 100 people. I mean, you've got 80 to 100 who won't vote for any debt limit, but even you have other people...
CONAN: Unless there's a balanced budget amendment with it, but that's not going to happen.
CONAN: Ron Elving, let me ask you: Matt Continetti was talking before about the new dynamic in the Republican Party, to use the verb primary, to be primaried, and these are challenges almost entirely from Tea Party-type candidates, this is not a Democratic Party phenomenon, not yet.
ELVING: Not yet, and that's partly I think what the caller was referring to a moment ago, when he was admiring, in a sense, the move of the Republican Party over the last 20 years, since the George H.W. Bush 1990 deal. And many people have said the same thing about the '64 defeat, the 1964 defeat of Barry Goldwater, that out of that defeat, which was devastating at the time and elected enormous majorities of Democrats in the Congress and LBJ, but things that happened over the next four years established the basis for not only Richard Nixon's presidency but later Ronald Reagan's presidency and the conservative movement in general, and that couldn't have happened without 1964 - maybe, maybe not. But a lot of people have made that observation. You could, I suppose, say something of the same thing about 1990.
It seems to me the caller is, in a sense, seeking a Democratic moment of truth. Maybe that would have to come from a disaster. I think that's the implication, that at least an electoral disaster would be necessary in which the Democrats lost everything, and presumably there were other consequences, as well, perhaps economic consequences from a default.
I think to some degree there is a minority within both parties that is not entirely unwilling to roll the dice and see, in the long run, which party would benefit if the two parties fail to come to the agreement that most conventional observers in politics and economics have always assumed would be done.
Look, I mean, since 1917, when this debt ceiling idea was established, and it's entirely voluntarily on the part of Congress to establish this debt ceiling, it has nothing to do with the market, it has to do only with the political will to raise more money through borrowing.
And since 1917, we've raised this thing almost 100 times. And most of the time it's not even been particularly noticed, and sometimes it's been politically controversial, other times it's been kind of swept under the rug. Sometimes it's been combined with other votes. But it's not been this big crisis, certainly not very often. And so now for this to come along at this particular moment I think illustrates that we're in a different moment in our politics and that people are willing to have this kind of Armageddon-like confrontation and risk, and maybe they're bluffing, maybe they're not - Matt seems to think maybe they're not bluffing - suggest that they're willing to drive over the cliff to see where we land.
CONAN: And, Matt Continetti, there are Republican presidential candidates, I think, perhaps with one exception, say don't raise the debt ceiling.
CONTINETTI: That's right, because they're catering to the grassroots of the party. And may I also point out, they're also entirely conforming to public opinion, which, as of the questioners at the president's news conference said today, you know, you look at these polls, and even when you introduce them to the question, you know, the risks involved that the economists say will happen if we don't raise the debt ceiling come August, the American people are still against raising the debt ceiling and...
CONAN: The American people are also overwhelmingly against cutting Medicare and Social Security.
CONTINETTI: What I'm saying is, politicians go where the signals are. And right now, Republican politicians running, you know, running in a presidential primary, have absolutely no incentive to call for raising the debt ceiling.
CONAN: Here's an email from Ben in Monmouth, Oregon. I'm a 30-year-old strong Democrat who votes in every primary. I volunteer and donate money to Democrats. Since my high school economics class, myself and every friend of mine has been warned not to count on Social Security, so we don't. I have no problem with Social Security being changed for my generation. I expect Congressman Schrader to support any change like this, but will not - it will not change my support for him in the primary as we are in a swing district.
So, there a very tactical voter. Why do you think so far, Michael Ettlinger, there have no significant numbers of challenges from the left to Democratic congressmen?
ETTLINGER: Well, I think there have been challenges to the left. I mean, people have certainly complained. These callers and emailers have done that. You know, I don't know. I mean, I think that - I think part of it is that a lot of the organization on the left has been, in the past, through unions. And this is an old story, but there was a point in time where, because in response to trade agreements, that the unions organized a big response against Democratic congressmen who'd supported traded agreements and that was seen as a big error because lots of Democrats lost, and they lost a lot of friends in Congress. So I think, at least among the organized, sort of, left of center community, I think there's some concern about that.
CONAN: We're talking with Michael Ettlinger, vice president for economic policy at the Center for American Progress; Matt Continetti, who's opinion editor at The Weekly Standard; and Ron Elving, NPR senior Washington editor. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go to Bruce, and Bruce on the line from Ann Arbor.
BRUCE: Boy, you know, I just want to say I am so incredibly opposed to the president giving any additional concessions to the Republicans. The fact that he's even remotely considering additional cuts to any social program just puts me over the edge. I mean, I'm a life-long Democrat, and this is the kind of thing that would literally push me to consider a third party candidate. To me, what the Republicans are doing is not about creating a smaller government, it's about eliminating a budget of revenue so that they can finally get rid of the social programs that they've been against for decades.
CONAN: The Republicans control the House of Representatives. If there's going to be a new debt limit, a new debt ceiling, you're going to have to get their votes.
BRUCE: Not according to the 14th Amendment.
CONAN: Ah, 14th Amendment. Ron Elving, would you help us out on the 14th Amendment?
ELVING: The 14th Amendment, which is a result of the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction, has a section in it that says that no debt of the United States should be ignored. No debt of the United States should be repudiated. One of the political motivations at the time was that there was a fear that once the Southern states were represented again by people who may have been sympathetic with the Southern cause in the Civil War, that they might try to repudiate some of the debts for pensions. So this fourth section of the 14th Amendment specifically mentions including pensions, and they were concerned about the pensions for the Civil War veterans on the Northern side.
This has not been applied, in conventional thinking, or in recent years, by any of the people that I know who have had anything to do...
CONAN: Recent years, we're talking a century.
ELVING: We're talking since the 1917 debt ceiling in the context of a discussion of the debt ceiling. If the debt ceiling is going to have any meaning, if any of these things are going to have any meaning, it would appear that we're talking about apples and oranges. But there is this language in the 14th Amendment that would seem to indicate that no debt can be ignored.
What does that, then, practically mean for a president on August 2nd? We've already reached 14.3 trillion and some in borrowing. We need more borrowing to pay the bills of the government. Do we either not pay the obligations of the government to, among others, the VA, pensioners, if you will, of our day, of the Civil War veterans, their inheritors in our era? Or do we not pay for the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Do we not pay the obligations that come due?
Even if you could, in some sense or another, bring this 14th Amendment language to bear in some sort of an intellectual argument, how do you actually pay any bills with it? And how do you force the appearance of money that doesn't otherwise exist on the basis of that language? It would have to be a matter taken to the courts, decided by the courts. That always takes time. It's always a very disputed process. This is an immediate crisis that needs a political solution.
CONAN: Bruce, thanks very much for the call. And looking for immediate solutions, in just a few seconds, Matt Continetti, you looking forward to that car crash?
CONTINETTI: No, not at all. That's why I'm going around saying pass the Zoloft. It's - when you look at the political situation in America today, the economic situation, the geopolitical situation, there is very little cause for cheer.
CONAN: And, Michael Ettlinger, do you think we're going to raise the debt ceiling?
ETTLINGER: I think we're going to raise the debt ceiling.
CONAN: And how are we going to do that?
ETTLINGER: They'll come up with a narrower set of things that they have to agree on. They'll be less ambitious on deficit reduction.
CONTINETTI: And if Michael is right, and he very well maybe, that means Obama will cave. And I think then you have a whole host of dynamics that Bruce alluded to, including a possible a primary challenge.
CONAN: Thank you very much for joining us today. I'm afraid this is a subject to which we may return before the next three weeks, or maybe four weeks, are up. Michael Ettlinger, of the Center for American Progress and Matt Continetti of The Weekly Standard, and as always, our thanks as well, to Ron Elving, NPR senior Washington editor, all of them here with us in Studio 3A.
Coming up, scandal brought down Britain's tabloid News of the World. Howard Kurtz argues that America's news media often succumbs to tabloid tactics as well. He'll join us on the Opinion Page, next. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.