Lawmakers Continue To Wrangle Over Debt Limit

The Obama administration Monday threatened to veto a Republican bill that would sharply reduce federal spending, both now and in the future. The Republican-controlled House is expected to vote on the measure Tuesday. Lawmakers and the president are also wrangling over how to increase the federal debt limit, so the government can keep paying its bills. President Obama met privately Sunday with the top House Republicans John Boehner and Eric Cantor.

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Today, the White House threatened to veto a Republican bill that would sharply reduce federal spending both now and in the future. The Republican-controlled House is expected to vote on the measure tomorrow.

Lawmakers and the president are also wrangling over how to increase the federal debt limit so the government can keep paying its bills. President Obama met privately yesterday with the top Republicans in the House, John Boehner and Eric Cantor.

NPR's Scott Horsley begins our coverage.

SCOTT HORSLEY: There are two dramas playing out in Washington this week. One is happening under bright lights in full view at the Capitol. That's where House Speaker John Boehner has called a vote tomorrow on a bill that would cut more than $100 billion from next year's budget and gradually reduce federal spending as a share of the economy over the next 10 years.

JOHN BOEHNER: We need real reforms to restrain the growth of spending in future years by spending cuts and, like, a real balanced budget amendment.

HORSLEY: The bill would require congressional passage of a balanced budget amendment before any increase in government borrowing. That would require an unlikely two-thirds vote in both chambers. House Republican Leader Eric Cantor calls it a common sense proposal to force Washington to live within its means.

ERIC CANTOR: We want to be able to go home to the people that elected us and show them that we're not going to allow this kind of spending to continue.

HORSLEY: The bill would also set annual caps on federal spending with the caps gradually shrinking to just 18 percent of the U.S. economy. Spending hasn't been that low since the 1960s. Republicans call their plan Cut, Cap and Balance. White House spokesman Jay Carney calls it Duck, Dodge and Dismantle.

JAY CARNEY: What we are witnessing here with this measure is classic Washington posturing, Kabuki theater. You know, this is a measure that is designed to duck, dodge and dismantle. Duck responsibility, dodge obligations and dismantle, eventually, if enshrined into law, which it will not be. But it would essentially require the dismantlement of our social safety net - Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

HORSLEY: On the surface, the two parties are miles apart. But it's just below the surface that the other drama is playing out. House Speaker Boehner's staff revealed today he and Cantor met privately with the president over the weekend.

Unlike last week's set piece meetings with the president and congressional leaders sitting around a table in the Cabinet room, there were no news cameras present to record this meeting. Still, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told CNBC the lines of communication are open.

TIMOTHY GEITHNER: I can tell you I spend all day both days in the White House, and there's a lot happening as we try to work with leaders on both sides and try to bring people together to do something useful for the economy, do something useful about our long-term deficits.

HORSLEY: These talks outside the spotlight are where any progress on reducing the deficit will actually be made. The bill before the House tomorrow is largely a distraction. But that's the point, says Rutgers' political analyst Ross Baker.

ROSS BAKER: There is this very elaborate camouflage operation that has to go on to make sure that nobody is cast into political jeopardy.

HORSLEY: House Republicans, many of whom campaigned against raising the debt ceiling, will need some political cover if the ceiling is raised so the government can keep paying its bills. Ultimately, Baker says, the battle being fought between the two parties is an old one.

BAKER: What is the proper scope of government? What are we willing to pay for the services that we want? And it has just taken a much more combative and weaponized tone within the last year or so.

HORSLEY: In that sense, tomorrow's high profile House vote is a kind of live fire exercise. It allows for lots of rhetorical rockets, but presumably will not result in any casualties.

If so, it could clear the way for a compromise on something like the plan drawn up by Senator Mitch McConnell allowing the president to raise the debt ceiling on his own. White House spokesman Carney said today that would be a good outcome but time is running short.

CARNEY: Congress, the administration, all those working together need to move this ball down the field this week to make sure that by next week we know that there will be an outcome that, at the very least, ensures that the United States does not default on its obligations.

HORSLEY: The White House hopes both dramas play out on schedule before the financial curtain comes crashing down.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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