Obama Urges Congress To Raise Debt Ceiling

At a White House news conference Monday, President Obama compared lawmakers who refuse to raise the debt limit to deadbeat diners who gorge themselves at a pricey restaurant, then try to skip out without paying the bill. Congressional Republicans quickly rejected the president's argument. They hope to use the debt ceiling fight to put the government on a spending diet.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

In a looming battle over the federal debt ceiling, Republicans in Congress insist they hold the cards. They do have the power to stop federal borrowing, withhold payment of federal debts and cause unknown damage to the world economy. Some want to use that power to force President Obama to reduce federal spending in the way they want.

MONTAGNE: In a news conference yesterday, the president worked to turn Republicans' power against them. He said Congress alone as the power and responsibility to pay the bills Congress itself voted to run up.

INSKEEP: And the president insisted he will not pay what he called ransom for Congress to do its job.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The White House billed yesterday's event as the last news conference of the president's first term. But it was really the opening shot of his second. The battle lines haven't shifted much. Mr. Obama is still locked in a struggle with Congressional Republicans over spending and taxes, with the next big showdown just a few weeks away.

Sometime between mid-February and early March, the federal government will hit its borrowing limit. And unless lawmakers raise the debt ceiling, the president says Washington won't be able to pay the bills it's already racked up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Raising the debt ceiling does not authorize us to spend more. All it does is say that America will pay its bills, and we are not a deadbeat nation.

HORSLEY: If all this sounds familiar, that's because Washington went through this same debate a year-and-a-half ago. Back then, the debt ceiling was raised at the last minute, but only after a protracted fight that send the stock market and consumer confidence plunging.

Mr. Obama has tried to avoid that this time by saying he simply won't negotiate over the debt ceiling. He's also ruled out legalistic maneuvers to get around Congress, such as invoking the 14th Amendment or minting a trillion-dollar coin. The president says that leaves Congressional Republicans with just two options.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: They can act responsibly and pay America's bills, or they can act irresponsibly and put America through another economic crisis. But they will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy.

HORSLEY: So far, GOP leaders have not blinked.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell says the debt ceiling debate is the perfect time to get serious about spending cuts. And House Speaker John Boehner argues that's what the American people want.

Republicans have called for one dollar in spending cuts for every dollar in additional borrowing capacity. But Mr. Obama says even Republicans can't agree on spending cuts of that magnitude, without making big changes to programs like Medicare that would be deeply unpopular.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: We just had an entire campaign about it. And, by the way, the American people agreed with me.

HORSLEY: Still, the president may be in a weaker bargaining position now than he was last month during the fiscal cliff talks. Then, he could get most of what he wanted automatically, even if Congress failed to act. Now he needs an affirmative vote from Republicans, and the cost of failure is much higher.

Mr. Obama says he is still willing to negotiate what he calls a balanced deficit-reduction plan, like the one that Speaker Boehner walked away from last month. But he says any talks over tax hikes or spending cuts should be separate from what he calls a must-pass increase in the debt ceiling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: What I will not do is to have that negotiation with a gun at the head of the American people.

HORSLEY: Figurative political guns weren't the only ones on the president's mind yesterday. He also got recommendations from Vice President Biden about how to address gun violence in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting. Those recommendations include universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: Will all of them get through this Congress? I don't know. But what's uppermost in my mind is making sure that I'm honest with the American people and with the members of Congress about what I think will work.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama plans to say more about his gun violence initiative later this week. But Republican leaders say that effort may have to wait for some resolution of the long-running fiscal fight.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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