Published April 21, 2011
President Obama is starting to feel pressure from his own party to tie spending cuts to a vote to raise the debt limit, even as the administration expresses confidence that Congress will ultimately raise the cap.
The latest moderate Democrat to draw a line in the sand is Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who told members of a local political group Wednesday that he'll need to see a commitment to cut spending and overhaul the tax code in order to vote to raise the $14.3 trillion cap. The government is expected to reach that ceiling by mid-May.
"What I've told anyone who will listen to me in Washington, including my leadership, is that I'm not going to vote for that unless there is a real and meaningful commitment to debt reduction," Pryor told the Political Animals Club at its monthly meeting at the governor's mansion.
Pryor said he believed the upcoming vote on the debt limit would prove whether lawmakers in Washington have the political will to begin addressing government spending. Meanwhile, three Democrats and three Republicans in the Senate are trying to strike an agreement by early May that would call for spending cuts, as well as changes in the tax code, over the next decade.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner suggested in interviews last weekend that bipartisan congressional leaders have assured the White House they would vote to raise the limit absent a deficit-reduction agreement. Geithner described such an agreement as necessary, but argued that it should not be tied to the debt vote as the possibility of not raising the cap is too fraught with financial risk.
Republicans, though, continue to demand some semblance of a commitment to cut spending as a condition for their support. And a handful of Democrats have started to tiptoe over to their side.
After Obama outlined a deficit-reduction plan a week ago, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he needs to make sure the government is not paying for a "blank check" with borrowed money.
"So let me also continue to be clear about my position on the debt ceiling," he said in a statement. "I strongly believe we must adopt a long-term, responsible and realistic fiscal plan that reflects our values and defines priorities, or I will vote against raising the debt ceiling."
Reps. Mike Ross, D-Ark., and Dan Boren, D-Okla., leaders of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition in the House, also suggested in an interview with Fox News two months ago that members of their group would balk at the vote unless they see "significant cuts."
"We can't default on our loans," Ross said at the time. "There's going to be a compromise, though."
Administration officials and Democratic congressional leaders have warned of catastrophic consequences if Congress fails to raise the ceiling. The Treasury Department could avoid hitting the ceiling for several weeks beyond the projected mid-May deadline by employing some last-resort measures, but officials warn that eventually benefits payments would stop and the country would default.
A number of Democrats in the rank-and-file have echoed those concerns. Dozens of House members have signed on to a letter from Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., calling for a "clean extension of the debt ceiling."
"The debt ceiling vote is about one thing -- affirming that America pays its bills," they wrote, noting that the vote would not automatically authorize new spending, but rather allow the country to pay off existing obligations.
Pryor, though, said the debt ceiling vote would have to coincide with a plan that includes spending cuts, major tax code changes and efforts to grow the nation's economy. He said every program will have to experience some cuts.
"Everybody's going to have a cut, no matter how worthy your program is or how much wise you'll be with the money or the great things you'll do. Get ready, because everything's going to get cut," Pryor said.
Pryor also faulted both parties for their approach to tax policy.
"Democrats think that if we can just raise enough taxes on millionaires, we can solve our problems. Republicans think if we never raise another tax for any reason under any circumstance ever again, we'll solve all our problems," Pryor said. "The truth is, the math doesn't add up for either of those positions. What we need is real tax reform. There's a ton of inequity in our tax code."
Pryor said he believed the debt commission appointed by Obama has provided a guide for lawmakers as they address the issue. That commission issued its recommendations, which included a mix of spending cuts and tax increases, but fell short of the votes needed to forward the recommendations on to Congress.
Under the commission's recommendations, about $4 trillion would be slashed from the budget over the coming decade -- three-fourths of it through spending cuts and the other fourth from higher taxes. Pryor said he believed the so-called gang of six senators working on a bipartisan compromise is looking at those recommendations as a guide.
"My sense is they'll take the debt commission's recommendations and they'll overlay that on top of the federal budget," Pryor said.
Pryor, however, said he's not on board with every recommendation from the commission. For example, he said he wouldn't support the commission's recommendation to eliminate the mortgage interest deduction on federal income tax.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.