Published June 30, 2011
WASHINGTON – The Senate canceled its planned July Fourth recess on Thursday, but partisan divisions remained razor sharp as the clock ticked on efforts to strike a deal to avoid a government default and trim huge federal deficits.
A day after President Barack Obama accused congressional leaders of procrastinating over the impasse, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced that the chamber would meet beginning next Tuesday. The Republican-run House is not in session this week but had already been scheduled to be at work next week.
Despite the Senate's schedule change, there was no indication the two sides had progressed in resolving their chief disagreement. Democrats insist that a deficit-cutting package of deep spending cuts also include higher taxes for the wealthiest Americans and fewer tax breaks for oil companies. Republicans say any such agreement would be defeated in Congress, a point Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made anew when he invited Obama to meet with GOP lawmakers at the Capitol on Thursday afternoon.
"That way he can hear directly from Republicans why what he's proposing won't pass," McConnell said on the Senate floor. "And we can start talking about what's actually possible."
The stakes of the debate were underscored when a Standard & Poor's executive said Thursday the credit-rating agency would give the government its lowest rating should lawmakers fail to agree on raising the borrowing limit and cause a federal default.
Should that occur, S&P would drop the U.S. rating of AAA to D, John Chambers, managing director of sovereign ratings for the company, said on Bloomberg Television.
McConnell's invitation to Obama seemed almost like a taunt, since well before McConnell spoke the White House had announced that Obama was heading to Philadelphia to attend Democratic fundraising events.
In Philadelphia, the president was met outside one fundraising event by protesters demanding less spending.
Later, at a donor's home, he reiterated his call for spending cuts and new tax revenues.
"The truth is you could figure out on the back of a napkin how to get this thing done," he said. "The question is one of political will."
White House spokesman Jay Carney defended Obama's decision to attend the fundraisers, saying, "We can walk and chew gum at the same time." He also said McConnell had merely "invited the president to hear what would not pass. That's not a conversation worth having."
The Obama administration has warned that if the government's $14.3 trillion borrowing limit is not raised by Aug. 2, the U.S. will face its first default ever, potentially throwing world financial markets into turmoil, raising interest rates and threatening the economic recovery. Many congressional Republicans indicate they're unconvinced that such scenarios would occur, and some administration officials worry that it could take a financial calamity before Congress acts.
One Democratic official familiar with the debt talks said the real deadline for reaching a bipartisan agreement on the debt and deficit reduction is mid-July, in order to give congressional leaders time to win votes and put final details of a deal into shape. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to reveal details of private negotiations.
Obama has said that in talks, Republican and Democratic negotiators have found more than $1 trillion in potential spending cuts over the coming decade, including reductions favored by both sides.
The Democratic official said Thursday that of those cuts, roughly $200 billion would come mainly from savings from Medicaid and Medicare, the federal health insurance programs for the poor and elderly.
Another $200 billion would come from cuts in other automatically paid benefit programs, including farm subsidies. Another large chunk would come from cuts in discretionary spending that Congress approves every year — presumably over $1 trillion, which is more than the White House but less than Republicans have proposed.
Both sides would then also count whatever interest savings they achieve through those deficit cuts.
The White House is also proposing about $400 billion in higher tax revenues. Republicans want no tax increases and deeper spending cuts than Democrats have proposed.
The overall goal would be to cut at least $2 trillion over 10 years.
Increasing the current borrowing limit by about $2.4 trillion would carry the government until the end of 2012 — thereby avoiding another congressional vote on the issue until after the next presidential and congressional elections. Republicans have insisted on coupling any extension with at least an equal amount of budget savings.
For next week, Reid laid plans for the Senate to debate legislation authorizing U.S. involvement in Libya. He told reporters that Democratic senators would also discuss the deficit standoff with Obama next Wednesday at the Capitol or the White House, meet with administration economic advisers and learn about a deficit-cutting plan crafted by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D.
"What we have to do is too important to not be here," Reid said.
But GOP senators belittled the plans, saying little would be achieved.
"Talk about Libya? How does that answer the concerns expressed by the president" about the debt limit, said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.
A confrontational tone dominated the day, with each side accusing the other of lacking seriousness about finding a way to extend the debt ceiling.
"Where is the president? Campaigning," said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., one of a parade of GOP senators who took to the Senate floor to accuse Obama of not tackling the deficit standoff. "We're here, Mr. President."
Democrats focused on the GOP refusal to consider tax increases, including loophole closers Democrats have proposed on companies that ship jobs abroad and on wealthy owners of yachts, race horses and aircraft.
"Protecting them is not protecting America," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the No. 2 Senate Democratic leader.
The United States pays an average of about 3 percent on its existing debt, according to the Treasury Department. In 2010, that added up to $197 billion in interest payments.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects interest paid will rise from $463 billion by 2015. That's under the assumption that the U.S. keeps its AAA credit rating. A D rating from Standard & Poor's would force the government to pay sharply higher interest rates.
Lou Crandall, chief economist at Wrightson ICAP, noted that one of the biggest challenges if the U.S. defaults would be finding enough investors who could buy junk-rated bonds. Pension funds and other institutional investors who buy a large number of Treasurys aren't generally allowed to buy securities with such low credit ratings.
Associated Press writers Ben Feller, Jim Kuhnhenn and Christopher S. Rugaber contributed to this report.