On an extraordinary night of political theater, President Obama railed on House Republicans for walking away from a debt-ceiling deal, only to see House Speaker John Boehner offer a rebuttal. Congress now seems eager to ignore the White House and do the job itself.
An exasperated President Obama virtually declared war on House Republicans in an angry and hastily called press conference Friday night, excoriating them for walking away from a deal to cut the deficit and raise the debt ceiling, saying the Republicans can't say "yes" to anything.
Shortly after, House Speaker John Boehner called his own press conference to say that negotiating with the White House was like "dealing with Jell-O," and suggesting he intends essentially to cut the president out of negotiations going forward.
It was an extraordinary two hours in Washington, in which many of the pent-up frustrations over the failure to clinch a deal on raising the debt ceiling boiled over into public view. Lawmakers now have 11 days to come up with a deal before the government loses its authority to borrow money on Aug. 2.
But some experts warn not to get caught up in the theatrics.
"One thing we have to keep in mind is that you get this brinksmanship all the time: sometimes they leave, they have drama, they come together. It's possible they still resurrect something," says Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "But Boehner is simply not going to cut a deal that has more Democrats than Republicans supporting it in the House."
The president's outburst came after Mr. Boehner walked out of talks, saying that Mr. Obama had "moved the goalposts" on a comprehensive deal to raise the debt ceiling and trim the deficit. Boehner said the two had agreed to $800 billion in increased revenues as part of the plan but alleged that Obama, under pressure from liberals, sought to change that figure to $1.2 billion. Obama denied "changing the goalposts" in his news conference.
Though congressional leaders will come to the White House Saturday at 11 a.m., the drive to resolve the nation’s debt crisis appears to have shifted to the Congress, where seasoned rival leaders say they are prepared to come up with a bipartisan plan to avoid default.
Obama appeared willing to accept anything Congress had to offer, with one caveat. “They can come up with any plans they want, and we will work on them,” he said. “The only bottom line I have is that we are going to have to extend this through the next election into 2013.”
With the president's "grand bargain" now off the rails, and the Republicans' favored "cut, cap, and balance" bill rejected by the Senate Friday, the only plan left on the table is one proposed by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell to give the president authority to raise the debt limit on his own. This week, Senate majority leader Harry Reid has begun tweaking the plan to make it more palatable to Democrats.
Yet congressional leaders on both sides call that a "last choice" option, and it will not be the immediate focus of renewed talks on Capitol Hill. “We’re working on a new path forward, a new plan,” says Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senator McConnell, though he offered no details.
Like Boehner, McConnell was eager for Congress to take the lead now.
“It’s time now for the debate to move out of a room in the White House and on to the House and Senate floors where we can debate the best approach to reducing the nation’s unsustainable debt,” said McConnell in a statement.
Senator Reid agreed that the ball is now in Congress's court. "We must avert a default at all costs, so it is time to reengage in bipartisan talks on an agreement that at least accomplishes that goal,” he said in a statement.
In the two news conferences Friday, details on the failed grand bargain came out for the first time: It included $1 trillion in cuts to discretionary spending, $650 billion in cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, and $800 billion in new revenue, which both sides agree could have been achieved though changes to the tax code that did not involve raising taxes.
From the start of negotiations over raising the national debt limit, now set at $14.3 trillion, Republicans have called for spending cuts at least as great as the proposed increase in the debt limit. In agreeing to pursue a grand bargain, Boehner also agreed to take up tax reform, but not tax hikes.
The aim, apparently shared by both sides at the start of the talks, was to use comprehensive tax reform to generate new revenue through eliminating tax breaks, loopholes, and credits and finding efficiencies in the tax system. For Republicans, the aim was to spur economic growth, lower individual and corporate tax rates, and bring new taxpayers into the system. For Democrats, it was to ensure that the highest-income taxpayers took part in a "shared sacrifice."
"If I’m saying to future recipients of Social Security or Medicare that you’re going to have to make some adjustments, it’s important that we’re also willing to make some adjustments when it comes to corporate jet owners, or oil and gas producers, or people who are making millions or billions of dollars,” the president said at Friday’s press conference.
In a letter alerting GOP House members of his walkout, Boehner said that “a deal was never reached, and was never really close.”
“In the end, we couldn’t connect," he wrote. "Not because of different personalities, but because of different visions for our country.”