Deadline Still Hangs Over Debt-Ceiling Talks

The White House and congressional leaders continued talking over the weekend, but with no public signs of progress on a deal to raise the debt ceiling.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

President Obama hosted congressional leaders almost every day last week and he held a couple of press conferences, all part of his efforts to reach a deal on raising the federal debt ceiling. Now the debate moves into another week with the clock ticking.

NPR's Cokie Roberts joins us to talk about this, as she does most Mondays.

Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Hi. You've watched many of these dances...

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: ...where it's maddening from the outside but things might be moving. Is anything moving?

ROBERTS: This week though, really, is a kabuki dance. Everybody is going through motions that they know are going to lead nowhere. So first up in the House of Representatives is a bill that they are calling Cut Cap Balance, where they cut federal spending, they cap it at 18 percent of gross domestic product. Right now it's at 24 percent. And they pass a balanced budget constitutional amendment. That will happen in the House. It will go absolutely nowhere in the Senate and will have not have moved anything, in terms of getting past this debt ceiling crises.

But the problem is, is that everybody is still dug in, in their respective positions. So Republicans are still saying no taxes whatsoever to reduce the deficit, and the president is still saying that he wants to hold out for some big package.

INSKEEP: Sometimes these symbolic votes, though, clear the way for substantive votes.

ROBERTS: Absolutely. That's right. So everybody's put a marker down, everybody's had a vote, and that does make it an easier situation for them. But look, you do have some you know, a reason that both sides are still sort of dug in on the $4 trillion for the White House.

INSKEEP: Uh-huh.

ROBERTS: Some of that is substance, Standard and Poors, the rating firm, said if the United States doesn't cut $4 trillion over 10 years, then it's in danger of having its credit rating downgraded.

But more interesting in terms of the politics is what Democrats are looking at here, is saying, look, we'd like a big number that says let's cut spending by that amount, and then that decision is made. Then the debate in Congress over the next year is over what to cut, what are the spending priorities, and there Democrats think that politically they're in better shape, because they say they'll protect Medicare. They'll protect Social Security, and they like that ground to stand on better than the ground of are we going to cut or not.

INSKEEP: So that's the Democratic politics. On the Republican side, one highlight, of course, has been opposition to any kind of tax increase. How's that working for them?

ROBERTS: Well, they say that if they that they're willing to do tax increases in a big tax reform package, but if they just agree to taxes in a deficit package, it just gives the Democrats an excuse to spend more money.

Look, they understand that their base is still completely against raising taxes. President Obama pointed to a Gallop poll last week that shows 26 percent of Republicans say cure the deficit only by spending cuts. And he says, see, even the Republicans aren't for it. Republicans point to that same poll and say, wait, 67 percent of Republicans, more than two-thirds, said mostly or only spending cuts, no taxes.

So they're still feeling that their base, the people that are going to vote Republican in the next election, are people who are still saying absolutely don't raise these taxes. And also, any talk of taxes splits their caucus in the Congress so severely that they really just really dont want to go there.

INSKEEP: Well, how, if at all, could the two sides find common ground?

ROBERTS: Not prettily. The package that Senator McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, proposed a while back, his fallback position that basically says the president raises the debt ceiling and we disapprove of it, but then it happens anyway because he vetoes our disapproval - very convoluted - that seems to be where we're headed.

Senator Reed, the Democratic leader, has added is working with McConnell. They're going to now say they're do that, but also have $1.5 trillion in cuts attached and name a commission, always a Washington solution to things, a Congressional commission to come back by the end of the year with more cuts.

Look, everybody knows that this is just a way to cover themselves politically and not go to the economic chaos of failing to raise the debt ceiling. And even that right now, doesn't have the votes to pass, but one assumes that it will in the end.

INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much. That's NPR's Cokie Roberts.

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