As debt debate begins, Obama praises 'Gang' plan

By Andrew Taylor

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, July 19 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama discusses the continuing budget talks, Tuesday, July 19, 2011, in the the briefing room of the White House in Washington.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Declaring "11th hour" urgency" to raise the government's borrowing limit, President Barack Obama on Tuesday hailed a plan by "Gang of Six" senators from both parties to reduce federal deficits as the kind of balanced approach that could break an economy-threatening deadlock. He said it was time for Congress as a whole to rally around such a proposal.

"We don't have any more time to engage in symbolic gestures, we don't have any more time to posture. It's time to get down to the business of actually solving this problem," the president said.

Obama spoke even as House Republicans pushed toward a vote on legislation that would require trillions in spending cuts and agreement on a balanced-budget constitutional amendment in exchange for an increase in the debt ceiling, which the government says must be raised by Aug. 2 to avoid economic calamity. That House plan is unlikely to get through the Senate, and Obama has said he would veto it if it ever arrived at his desk.

Facing the deadline in two weeks, Obama said he would call House Speaker John Boehner after Tuesday's vote to invited him and other leaders back to the White House for meetings in coming days.

Obama, Boehner and other top leaders met last week for five days straight without reaching agreement, leading to warnings from credit agencies about dire consequences the U.S. defaults on its obligations for the first time, rendering it unable to pay its bills.

Obama added his own warning Tuesday, saying that while financial markets have shown confidence thus far in Washington, it won't last much longer if lawmakers fail to act.

But he found cause for optimism in the announcement Tuesday by leaders of a bipartisan "Gang of Six" senators that they're nearing agreement on a major plan to cut the deficit by more than $4 trillion over the coming decade.

"I think it's a very significant step," Obama said, calling it "broadly consistent with the approach I've urged."

The Gang of Six plan calls for an immediate $500 billion "down payment" on cutting the deficit as the starting point toward cuts of more than $4 trillion that would be finalized in a second piece of legislation. It would raise revenues by about $1 trillion over 10 years and cut popular benefit programs like Medicare and Medicaid — dealing out political pain to Republicans and Democrats.

That mixture of cuts and new revenue is the "balanced approach" Obama has urged, though it's rejected by many Republicans because it would require higher taxes for some.

Rep. Dave Camp, Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the spending cuts and budget mechanisms in the plan could form the basis of a deal but tax increases would be a big problem for him and fellow GOP lawmakers.

"A trillion dollars is a lot, by any measure," Camp said of the tax increases in the plan.

While praising the broader plan, Obama said it was still important to have a "Plan B" option being worked on by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as a fallback. The McConnell-Reid plan would give Obama the ability to raise the debt limit by $2.5 trillion in three installments over the next year without a separate vote by lawmakers. Instead, a panel of House and Senate members would be created to recommend cuts in benefit programs, with their work guaranteed a yes-or-no vote in the House or Senate.

While all that was going on behind the scenes, advocates of the legislation to be voted on in the House on Tuesday said it would cut spending by an estimated $111 billion in the next budget year and then by more than an additional $6 trillion over a decade — and require Congress to send a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution to the states for ratification — in exchange for raising the debt limit by $2.4 trillion.

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