Debt talks dissolve into acrimony

Boehner walks out; irate Obama summons leaders to talks today

'One of the questions the Republican Party is going to have to ask itself is, 'Can they say yes to anything?' ' President Obama said. "One of the questions the Republican Party is going to have to ask itself is, 'Can they say yes to anything?' " President Obama said. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
By Matt Viser and Theo Emery
Globe Staff / July 23, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Negotiations between House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama over an expansive budget deal to prevent a government default disintegrated yesterday, with both parties blaming the other for leaving the country with no clear way forward as a deadline for action rapidly approaches.

The president, his voice at turns exasperated and angry during a hastily called news conference, demanded that top House and Senate lawmakers report to the White House this morning. And don’t come empty-handed, the president warned: “We have run out of time. And they are going to have to explain to me how it is that we are going to avoid default.’’

With rhetoric hardening and tempers flaring, the possibility for a broad deal on cutting the country’s deficit began to appear less likely, with some lawmakers calling for the focus to turn to a more short-term solution.

Obama said Boehner would not return his phone calls early yesterday.

“I’ve been left at the altar now a couple of times,’’ Obama said, although he avoided directly criticizing the House speaker.

He had no such hesitancy when he spoke of other members of the GOP.

“One of the questions the Republican Party is going to have to ask itself is, ‘Can they say yes to anything?’ ’’ said the president, who has been seeking to mix revenue increases with spending cuts in a $3 trillion deal to cut the growth of the nation’s deficit over the next decade.

House Republicans have vowed to vote down any deal with tax increases.

“Dealing with the White House is like dealing with a bowl of Jell-O,’’ Boehner retorted at his press conference on Capitol Hill.

In a letter sent out earlier to House lawmakers, he blamed Obama for the deterioration of the talks, saying that the president insisted on including tax increases.

“It became evident that the White House is simply not serious about ending the spending binge that is destroying jobs and endangering our children’s future,’’ Boehner wrote. “A deal was never reached and was never really close.’’

“In the end, we couldn’t connect,’’ he added. “Not because of different personalities, but because of different visions for our country.’’

It was the second time Boehner had left talks with the White House, but the leaders appeared close to a comprehensive deal on spending that would be tied to a vote to raise the limit on the nation’s ability to borrow more money. The Treasury Department says that without a vote of Congress the government will begin defaulting on some of its obligations starting on Aug. 3.

Portions of the deal Obama and Boehner were negotiating had faced fierce opposition from liberal Democrats, who worried about steep cuts in cherished social programs.

In revealing some of the details for the first time, Obama said the White House had offered to cut $1 trillion from discretionary spending, in domestic and defense budgets. The White House then offered an additional $650 billion in cuts to entitlement programs, including Medicare and Social Security.

He said the deal was more generous to the Republican’s position than a bipartisan option that was revealed in the Senate this week. That plan, crafted by a group of six senators, called for a mix of spending cuts, including limits to Social Security raises, with an overhaul of the tax code. Money saved from slicing loopholes and deductions from the code would have been used to lower the nation’s debt.

Boehner, however, countered that he and the president had been approaching a deal midweek but “the White House moved the goal posts’’ and asked for an additional $400 billion in tax increases.

“It’s the president who walked away from his agreement and demanded more money at the last minute,’’ Boehner said.

A White House aide said Boehner threw a curveball before leaving the deal, asking Obama to include a provision that could trigger the repeal of the individual mandate from the health care law. That request would have cut at the heart of Obama’s signature legislation, which Republicans have adamantly opposed.

An aide for Boehner contested the White House official’s description of the mandate provision, saying in an email “It’s complicated . . . that’s not a fair way to describe the scenario.’’ But he acknowledged that the mandate was “an option under discussion.’’

Though Boehner said he would be at the White House today with other congressional leaders, he indicated last night that he would cut the president out of future talks and deal only with other leaders in Congress.

“I have confidence in the bipartisan leaders of the Congress that we can come together and ensure that we have an agreement that will allow the country to avoid default and meets the principles we’ve outlined: spending cuts that must be greater than the increase in the debt limit, and no tax increase,’’ he said.

Attention probably will turn to a less ambitious deficit-reduction plan, one that will focus more narrowly on raising the country’s debt limit. But even that approach is fraught with political peril. Many House Republicans have been opposed to a plan pieced together by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell that would give Obama the authority to raise the debt limit himself.

Beyond the immediate crisis, the fallout could have broader ramifications. During his 30-minute briefing, Obama showed the fiery passion that his liberal base often says he lacks. And Republicans have become more mobilized around criticizing Obama and accommodating the views of the Tea Party movement, which helped them gain control of the House in last year’s elections.

News of the collapse of the Boehner-Obama talks stunned some lawmakers.

“What the hell are they doing?’’ asked Representative Michael E. Capuano, a Somerville Democrat. “For the first time now, I’m very nervous about this situation.

“I’ve always believed that the world is populated by adults, mature adults who understand you have to give something to get something,’’ he added. “For the first time, I’m really starting to wonder whether that’s an accurate belief. It’s not a good sign - it’s a terrible sign.’’

Representative James McGovern, a Worcester Democrat, was slightly more optimistic that the a deal could be worked out, but only because the consequences of not doing so are so dire.

Failure to do so, he said, would be “an all-time high in recklessness and stupidity.’’

“This is time for a grown-up moment,’’ he said. “Getting up and walking away from a deal, leaving the table, that’s not an option anymore.’’

At a press conference earlier yesterday, Boehner issued what turned out to be a prophetic comment.

“I suggest it’s going to be a hot weekend here in Washington, D.C,’’ he said.

Matt Viser can be reached at Theo Emery can be reached at top stories on Twitter

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