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Obama, House GOP Talk Debt; Neither Side Blinks

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Obama, House GOP Talk Debt; Neither Side Blinks


Obama, House GOP Talk Debt; Neither Side Blinks

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

The entire House Republican conference went to the White House today to talk about the debt with President Obama. The conversation was described as very frank. That's usually Washington code for frosty.

The meeting came just a day after the House voted overwhelmingly not to raise the nation's debt ceiling.

To win over some Republican votes and to make sure the nation doesn't default for the first time, the White House is trying to negotiate a deficit reduction package.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: The House Republicans came to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in a caravan of big blue buses. After their 70-minute, closed-door meeting with the president - a meeting that some of them described as chilly - the Republicans emerged into the sweltering heat. And House Speaker John Boehner gave this readout.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; Speaker of the House): It was an opportunity for, clearly, our members to communicate directly with the president about our ideas about how we solve the debt problem that's facing our country. I told the president, one more time, this is the moment. This is the window of opportunity where we can deal with this on our terms. We can work together and solve this problem. We know what the problems are; let's not kick the can down the road one more time.

LIASSON: President Obama could have said the same thing, and he has, many times. But although both parties do agree on the problem, they don't agree on the solution.

Here's House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia; House Majority Leader): Well, the president talked about a need for us to continue to, quote, unquote, "invest" from Washington's standpoint. And to a lot of us, that's code for more Washington spending, something that we can't afford right now.

LIASSON: The Republicans repeated their long-held positions in the debt ceiling talks: that spending be cut $2 trillion over 10 years; no tax increases; and they want the president to agree to significant reforms in Medicare, the biggest driver of the deficit.

Democrats say they're open to some kinds of Medicare changes but not unless Republicans agree to more revenues - either tax hikes or a limit to tax loopholes.

It sounds like the two parties are at the same old standstill, but White House press secretary Jay Carney decided to put the best possible spin on the meeting between the president and his Republican adversaries.

Mr. JAY CARNEY (Press Secretary, White House): This is part of a process that's very productive and helps reduce, I think, some of the, you know, confrontational atmosphere that surrounds some of these discussions. It doesn't mean that we don't disagree on some fundamental issues - of course, we do. And we've been very clear, and we haven't papered over our differences, and neither have they.

LIASSON: Both sides have been reassuring the financial markets that the debt ceiling will be raised, but the White House and the Republicans are still far from a deal that would allow that to happen. And, says budget expert Stan Collender, the Republicans in particular don't have much room for compromise.

Mr. STAN COLLENDER: Because of the Tea Party folks, they cannot possibly agree to an increase in the debt ceiling, no matter what it includes, until the very last minute, so it looks like they've driven the hardest possible bargain.

LIASSON: If Republicans agree to a deal too early, it may look like they left something on the table, says Collender. He thinks the markets may have to react to give the two sides an incentive to come together.

Mr. COLLENDER: In some respects, that's what they need politically. That is, members of Congress who want to vote - would like to vote for the debt ceiling, need some excuse to be able to do that. And a market being spooked would allow them.

LIASSON: The Treasury Department says the U.S. will default if Congress and the White House don't reach agreement by August 2nd. Collender predicts the markets will start getting nervous if there's no deal by around the third week of July.

Investors could stop buying U.S. debt. And while that might help scare negotiators out of their stalemate, it could also spark a rise in interest rates that might not be easy to reverse. And that would raise U.S. borrowing costs and make it even harder to reduce the debt.

So the talks continue. Tomorrow, it's the House Democrats' turn to meet with the president.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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