Obama Slow-Rolls GOP on Budget Talks

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The White House is slow-rolling demands by Republicans that President Barack Obama join the debt ceiling talks, which are now deadlocked because of Republican opposition to Democrats’ demands for tax increases.

A Friday announcement by the White House’s press office said Obama will meet with the Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell early Monday evening “to discuss the status of the negotiations to find common ground on a balanced approach to deficit reduction.” Prior to that Obama will meet with Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. No meeting was announced with leaders of the Republican majority in the House.

White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to say when the president would meet with House Speaker John Boehner, even though he was asked repeatedly by reporters in a Friday press conference. “The President hasn’t had any conversations with the Speaker since the Speaker visited the White House the other night… We are in constant contact with leaders of Congress.  I just told you that the Vice President of the United States has been in touch with both Republicans and Democrats on the Hill in the last 24 hours, and that continues… I have no other meetings to announce at this time,” Carney said.

Following the Thursday breakdown in the talks, both Biden and Obama were out of town on Friday. Biden traveled to Delaware and Obama flew to a high-tech center in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Obama is avoiding the negotiations to concentrate public and media attention on the Republicans, said Wes Anderson, a partner of OnMessage Inc., a polling firm in Crofton, Md., that mostly works for GOP candidates.

“As long as this is an argument about Republicans saying ‘How do we make sure we meet the expectations of the voters who sent us?’ then no one is blaming the Democrats for not providing leadership and not getting this done,” he said. “When the president is only tangentially in the the conversation, that’s good for them, it’s not good for us,” he said.

The debt ceiling controversy is politically critical because it is likely to have an impact on the 2012 election, not just on the government’s balance sheet.

Obama is already riding low in the polls, and the Democrats will lose control of the Senate if Republicans win just 4 of the 23 Democrat-held seats up for election in 2012.

Republicans worry their fired-up base will lose heart if the GOP fails to win a good deal on the debt ceiling. They’re less likely to get a good deal if Obama slow-rolls the talks until a financial crisis arrives in late July.

In such a crisis, administration officials can allocate budget cuts and direct media coverage to maximize the political pain for Republicans, said a GOP Senate staffer. The resulting public anger would likely pressure Republicans into a deal that splits their base, the staffer said. Democrats have already used that strategy during government-shutdown talks in April and in the mid-1990s, he said.

Democrats “believe if we get to the [August 2] deadline and there’s no deal there would be panic in the [financial] markets, and the voters will blame the Republicans,”Anderson said.

The deadline exists because the federal government has already incurred cumulative debts of $14.3 trillion, and this year’s budget has an extra deficit of more than $1 trillion. The government has to give itself legal authority to borrow more money by Aug. 2 , or else White House officials must start making cuts in programs and debt payments that will spur public anger towards Washington.

GOP activists also worry that a mishandled deal could prompt swing voters to shift from anti-Obama attitudes to a general anti-incumbent mood. “The real questions is if there is [only] $2 trillion in budget cuts, do we meet the expectations among independents and Republicans that we have done what we need to do?” said Anderson, who completed a mid-June poll of 1,000-likely voters for the small-government group, Let Freedom Ring. The poll, he said, shows that swing voters want “$2 trillion plus something that shows permanency, that shows systematic change and and reform,” he said.

The swing voters, he said, “are more angry and nervous and scared about out-of-control government now than they were in October last year,” he said. If Republicans manage the debt negotiations well, he said, the 2012 election ”will be an anti-Democratic cycle, but if we don’t live up to the expectations of the voters, it will be anti-incumbent.”

On Thursday, Rep. Eric Cantor, the leading House Republican in the talks, said there would be no budget deal unless the negotiators also agree to changes to Congress budget-making process. Those budget rules, which were set by a wave of left-wing Democrats elected in 1974, tend to ratchet government spending up each year.

On Friday, House Speaker John Boehner repeated this demand for budget reforms. “The American people voted for a new majority in the House with clear orders to end the spending binge in Washington,” he said in a statement. “The American people will not accept an increase in the debt limit that is accompanied by job-crushing tax hikes and fails to dramatically cut and reform government spending.”

Democrats, however, emphasize polls that show support for tax increases.

An April New York Times/CBS News poll showed that 72 percent supported tax increases on people earning more than $250,000 a year. In recent days, several top Democrats, including Biden and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, have said the budget talks should raise taxes.

Meanwhile, the president is using his public appearances to shape the debate. “What you’re going to see over the next several months, but also over the next several years, is a debate about who we are — because there’s a way for us to solve our deficit problems and our debt problems in a way that’s fair and balanced and that shares sacrifice so that we’re not just doing it on the backs of the poor,” he told attendees at a June 23 fundraiser attended mostly by African-Americans, who paid $100 for their tickets to the Broadway Theatre in New York.

The speech was mostly upbeat, but repeated a frequent Democratic criticism of the GOP. “The notion that [the wealthy] should not have to pay a little more; the notion that [wealthy people] would get a $200,000 tax break, and as a consequence of that tax break, hundreds of kids might not be able to go to Head Start, or… senior citizens might end up having to pay thousands of dollars more for their Medicare… that’s not who I think we are,” he said.

White House spokesman Carney repeated the same message in the Friday press conference. “We won’t support an approach that gives millionaires and billionaires $200,000 in tax cuts annually while 33 seniors pay for that with a $6,000 per person increase in their Medicare costs.  We just don’t believe that that’s a fair or balanced approach to solving this problem.”