President pushes wide deal on debt

Harry Reid, Senate majority leader, stood in an elevator surrounded by security after a White House meeting yesterday. Harry Reid, Senate majority leader, stood in an elevator surrounded by security after a White House meeting yesterday. (Harry Hamburg/Associated Press)
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / July 21, 2011

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WASHINGTON - President Obama and some leaders in Congress said yesterday they planned to forge ahead with the challenging task of striking a broad, bipartisan deal to raise the national debt ceiling, despite an almost impossibly tight deadline and strong objections - from liberal Democrats who object to trillions in budget cuts and also from conservative Republicans who are balking at tax increases.

The president is hoping he and lawmakers can forge a centrist coalition to pass such a complex and historic deal, with provisions that include a reduction in cost-of-living hikes for Social Security recipients. To buy more time, Obama’s spokesman said, the White House is willing to support some kind of temporary debt-limit increase as long as it is tied to an agreement on a more ambitious plan.

The president huddled at the White House in separate meetings with Democrats, then Republicans, with time running out. Every scenario being debated now is also accompanied by questions of how a package could be pushed through Congress before Aug. 2, when the government will run out of money, have its creditworthiness downgraded, and begin to default on its obligations.

“There is still time to do something significant if all parties are willing to compromise, because the parameters of what that might look like are well known, especially to the participants in the negotiations the president oversaw last week,’’ White House press secretary Jay Carney said during a briefing yesterday.

But the criticism from both ends of the political spectrum illustrated how difficult it would be to craft a deal that could pass Congress, even as supporters held out hope that there would be enough support from the moderates in each party. A dozen House lawmakers representing ethnic minority caucuses held a press conference yesterday to warn that they would not support cuts in Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare.

“Let’s not deal with this deficit and balance the budget on the backs of people who have no alternatives,’’ said Representative Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat. “Our country is better than that.’’

“The drumbeat has been around Social Security and the entitlement programs,’’ said Representative Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat. “The drumbeat needs to be that this is collateral that we cannot afford to lose.’’

Representative Barney Frank, a Newton Democrat, remained concerned over changes that would limit the cost-of-living-increases for Social Security recipients.

“I’m not voting to cut what some old lady gets who’s living on $17,000,’’ he said. “No way.’’

Senator Bernie Sanders, the independent of Vermont, has emerged as a chief critic of the plan. He said that under the proposal, changes to cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security recipients mean that a typical 75-year-old’s annual benefits would be $560 less than projected under current law in 10 years.

“Despite President Obama’s campaign promise not to cut Social Security benefits, the Gang of Six plan, which he apparently embraced, calls for massive cuts in that vitally important program,’’ Sanders said.

Most of the talks have centered on a new proposal released this week by a bipartisan group of senators. The so-called Gang of Six, made up of three Republicans and three Democrats, is still working to finalize some 100 pages of draft legislation. But the parameters of the deal call for cutting the deficit’s growth by $3.7 trillion over 10 years.

The plan would immediately cut $500 billion from this year’s budget. The rest of the changes would be done over several months, with many of the knotty details left to congressional committees to decide under certain parameters.

For example, the plan calls for a series of cost-saving changes in the national health care law, including the elimination of the voluntary insurance plan for long-term home-based care.

“Once you make a proposal that puts everything on the table, the knives come out,’’ said Senator Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican and one of the members of the Gang of Six. “The attacks from every side by organized interest groups that like their current position in our current fiscal policy are out to try and stop something like this.’’

Some on both sides of the aisle still held out hope for a deal.

“It breaks the logjam. It . . . allows the conversation to proceed,’’ said Representative Richard Neal, a Springfield Democrat who hasn’t explicitly endorsed the proposal. “There’s now room here for a conventional political settlement.’’

Some moderate House Republicans also warmed to the idea.

“I’m not in love with every specific, but that’s not where we are at this moment in time,’’ said Representative Steve LaTourette, a Republican from Ohio. “We just need a wagon upon which people can hop on and ride. And if this is it, that’s great. If it’s not, we can figure out something else.’’

If Congress is unable to come to terms on a broad deal, attention would turn to a more basic matter of raising the $14.3 trillion debt limit, which would allow the treasury to borrow more money to continue paying its bills. But even that process remains in doubt.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and majority leader Harry Reid have been working on a fail-safe approach that would give Obama the power to raise the debt limit without congressional approval, sparing representatives and senators the need to cast an unpopular vote in favor of a debt-ceiling increase.

But many House Republicans oppose that plan, which would be accompanied by some deficit-reduction measures.

“If there’s a state or condition worse than death, that’s where [McConnell’s plan] would be,’’ said Representative Trey Gowdy, a Republican of South Carolina. “I can’t think of one, so we’ll just go with death for now.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at