Obama Calls Urgent Meeting On Debt Ceiling

President Obama has summoned Congressional leaders to the White House, after private deficit reduction talks with House Republican leaders broke down Friday night.

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SCOTT SIMON, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. President Barack Obama has summoned congressional leaders back the White House today. One way or another, he says, they have to raise the government's debt ceiling to prevent a default that now looms just a week and a half away. Mr. Obama called the meeting after a more ambitious effort to carve trillions of dollars off the federal deficit collapsed late yesterday. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: For almost a month now, President Obama's been talking privately - off and on - with House Speaker John Boehner about a way to reduce the government's long-term deficit. The talks have had their ups and downs, but according to the White House, by Thursday morning, the two men were closing in on a deal. There were still some big issues to resolve and the president expected to talk by telephone with Boehner Thursday night. Instead, it was late Friday when the speaker finally called with surprising news. As Mr. Obama told a half-empty White House press room, Boehner was again walking away from negotiations.

President BARACK OBAMA: I've been left at the altar now a couple of times and I think that, you know, one of the questions that the Republican Party is going to have to ask itself is can they say yes to anything?

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama says he was offering deep cuts in federal spending in exchange for a smaller tax increase than the one negotiated by the Senate's bipartisan Gang of Six. The increase in tax revenue would have totaled about $1.2 trillion over the next decade. That was $400 billion more than Boehner would agree to.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER: The White House moved the goalpost. There was an agreement on some additional revenues until yesterday when the president demanded $400 billion more, which was going to be nothing more than tax increase on the American people.

HORSLEY: Even as he ended talks with the White House, Boehner said he would open negotiations with leaders in the Senate to find a path forward. Boehner is taking part in this morning's White House meeting, but he clearly wants to shift control to his own end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the U.S. Capitol.

BOEHNER: It's time to get serious, and I'm confident that the bipartisan leaders here in the Congress can act. If the White House won't get serious, we will.

HORSLEY: President Obama flatly denied that any goalposts had moved during the deficit talks. White House aides say they understood Boehner might not be able to deliver the additional $400 billion in tax revenue, but if that were the case, the president wanted a smaller reduction in government spending.

President OBAMA: That's only fair. If I'm saying to future recipients of Social Security or Medicare that you're going to have to make some adjustments, it's important that we're also willing to make some adjustments when it comes to corporate jet owners or oil and gas producers or people who are making millions or billions of dollars.

HORSLEY: The White House also rejected the idea that it was not serious about spending cuts. Mr. Obama was entertaining some $250 billion worth of cuts to Medicare, including a gradual increase in the eligibility age to 67. That would have been a tough pill for his fellow Democrats to swallow.

President OBAMA: And to their credit - Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, the Democratic leadership - they sure did not like the plan that we were proposing to Boehner. But they were at least willing to engage in a conversation because they understood how important it is for us to actually solve this problem. And so far, I have not seen the capacity of the House Republicans in particular to make those tough decisions.

HORSLEY: White House aides say the Republicans added their own last-minute demand. They wanted to use the individual mandate in the new health care law as a forcing mechanism. So, if the desired spending cuts did not materialize, the mandate would go away. All of that is now off the table as lawmakers try to tackle the immediate challenge of raising the nation's debt limit. Mr. Obama says that's the least they need to do, and quickly.

President OBAMA: I think it's very important that the leadership understands that Wall Street will be opening Monday and we better have some answers during the course of the next several days.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama still holds out a slim hope for a bigger deficit cutting compromise. But as he bluntly warned last night, we've now run out of time. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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