WASHINGTON — In a blistering rebuke of Republicans, President Barack Obama on Wednesday pressed lawmakers to accept tax increases as part of a deal to cut the nation’s deficits and avoid a crippling government default. “Let’s get it done,” Obama challenged, chiding Congress for frequent absences from Washington.
Senators from Obama’s own Democratic Party quickly said they’d consider canceling next week’s July 4 recess to work on a possible agreement, and as the day went on senators said they assumed they would stay.
In a White House news conference, Obama offered one fresh wrinkle to try to give the economy and pessimistic voters a lift, calling on Congress to pass a one-year extension of the Social Security payroll tax cut that employees got this year. But he used most of the hour-long session to try to sway public opinion his way on the debt debate consuming Washington.
Obama accused Republicans of intransigence over tax hikes, comparing their leaders to procrastinating children and painting them as putting millionaires, oil companies and jet owners ahead of needy students. One Democratic official said that in talks to date, the administration was seeking roughly $400 billion in higher tax revenue over the next decade.
Responding quickly to the news conference, the Republican House Speaker, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, shot back that the president was ignoring reality.
“His administration has been burying our kids and grandkids in new debt and offered no plan to rein in spending,” Boehner said as the day’s events seemed only to entrench both sides. “The president is sorely mistaken if he believes a bill to raise the debt ceiling and raise taxes would pass the House. The votes simply aren’t there.”
Obama insisted he wouldn’t support a deal to cut the deficit unless it includes higher tax revenue, not just spending cuts. Republicans have refused to consider that. The stalemate threatens to derail an extension of the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt limit, which in turn could lead the government into an unprecedented default.
“They need to do their job,” Obama said of Republicans. “Now’s the time to go ahead and make the tough choices.”
Professing optimism — but with a bite — the president said, “Call me naive, but my expectation is that leaders are going to lead.”
Obama’s aggressive response came with the country souring on the recovery, the Republican presidential contenders taking aim at his economic record and GOP leaders in Congress challenging him to show more leadership in the debt stalks. His re-election hinges on the economy, and Obama is trying to restore a sense of public confidence.
The Treasury Department says the government is on pace to begin failing to pay its bills by Aug. 2 unless Congress votes to allow the limit on federal debt to rise.
Obama declared that is a “hard deadline” and warned that waiting too long could spook capital markets and prompt investors to bail. Here, too, he tried to put heat on Congress by saying lawmakers should cancel any plans to take days off in July if they can’t make substantial progress by the end of this week.
Democratic Senate leaders met later with Obama at the White House and sent word they were considering canceling next week’s scheduled recess.
“I think we are going to be here” next week, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said. “No announcement has been made, but to me it’s pretty clear.”
Conrad said he would unveil a Senate Democratic budget that Democratic senators on his panel signed off on Wednesday. He said there would not be a vote on the plan.
Before that, Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky said that if the Democrats keep the Senate schedule “they are running from this debate.” And Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said, “The fact that anyone would even consider recessing at this point in time is absurd.”
The House, under Republican control, has been in recess this week but is to return on Tuesday. Democrats hold a majority in the Senate.
Obama said even his daughters, 12-year-old Malia and 10-year-old Sasha, get their homework done ahead of deadline. “Congress can do the same thing,” the president said. “If you know you’ve got to do something, just do it.”
Obama sought to reframe the entire debt debate in terms people would care about, accusing Republicans of protecting tax breaks for corporate jet owners on the backs of college students who would lose their federal aid — even though there is no direct relationship between that tax provision and any particular budget cut. He spoke of eliminating tax cuts that favor the rich and oil companies — “I don’t think that’s real radical” he said — but Republicans contend the White House is pursuing far broader tax changes that would undermine job creation.
At his first formal White House news conference in more than three months, Obama also pushed back against Republican criticism of the U.S.-aided military campaign in Libya, saying congressional concerns about consultation were not substantive.
And he even took a sharp tone toward the business leaders that his White House has tried to court. “The business community is always complaining about regulations,” he said in response to one question. “Frankly, they want to be able to do whatever they think is going to maximize their profits.”
The president stepped to the podium not long after the International Monetary Fund publicly urged lawmakers to raise the U.S. debt limit, now $14.3 trillion, and warned that failure to do so could produce a spike in interest rates and “severe shock to the economy and world financial markets.”
Obama also spoke on the same day that Senate Republicans announced support for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution that would establish a new requirement for a two-thirds majority of each house of Congress to raise taxes. “Washington has to stop spending money we don’t have,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
On the deficit, Obama said both parties must be prepared to “take on their sacred cows” as part of the negotiations, with Democrats accepting cuts in government programs.
Republicans in Congress have been insistent in recent days that any deficit reduction be limited to spending cuts, including reductions in benefit programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, and exclude additional revenues.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Wednesday that Obama “can’t call for tax hikes and job creation. It’s one or the other.”
At Obama’s behest, Vice President Joe Biden met for weeks with bipartisan teams from the House and Senate on a package to cut the deficit and, in turn, earn support to raise the debt limit to pay for costs already incurred. Democrats proposed about $400 billion in additional tax revenue, including ending subsidies to oil and gas companies.
The talks halted when Republicans said there was an impasse over the tax issue, and they called on Obama to get more involved.
He bristled over that at the news conference and suggested that ultimately Republicans will give ground on the need to raise revenue, not just cut spending.
“Here in Washington, a lot of people say a lot of things to satisfy their base or to get on a cable news,” he said, “Hopefully, leaders at a certain point rise to the occasion and they do the right thing for the American people.”
Associated Press writers David Espo, Erica Werner and Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.