Fresh White House talks for debt negotiators

By Andrew Taylor

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, July 20 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama summoned top Democratic lawmakers to the White House Wednesday to resume negotiations on averting a potentially crippling government default, as attention focused on a new bipartisan budget plan emerging in the Senate. Republicans expected to come, too, separately.

The White House also indicated Obama would be willing to sign a short-term debt limit increase — something he's opposed — if it's merely a stop-gap measure to allow time for a broader plan to be put into place. It's unlikely a broad deficit-cutting measure could be finished by the Aug. 2 deadline to increase the government's borrowing limit.

The meeting with House and Senate Democratic leaders, planned for mid-afternoon Wednesday, marked a partial resumption of talks that ended last week after five days of Obama huddling with lawmakers from both parties, with little progress to show. Republican officials said they expected a meeting between GOP leaders and the president later in the day.

The announcement Tuesday of a possible agreement by the Senate "Gang of Six" on a budget plan was seized by Obama as a possible breakthrough. Now the job for the president, if he is to build momentum behind the plan, includes overcoming GOP opposition to tax hikes involved and selling members of his own party on the cuts to entitlement programs that the plan embraces.

"We are in the 11th hour," said White House press secretary Jay Carney, repeating what Obama had said Tuesday. "We need to meet, talk, consult and narrow down in fairly short order what train we're riding into the station."

Carney also indicated that the president would be willing to support a short-term extension as a stop-gap measure. Carney said Obama would not support a short-term extension "absent an agreement on a larger deal."

"If both sides agree on something significant we will support the measures necessary to finalize the details," Carney said.

The plan by the Gang of Six senators, three from each party, is probably far too complicated and contentious to be approved before the Aug. 2 deadline to avoid a default that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and other experts warn would drive up interest rates and threaten to take the country back into a recession. But the plan's authors clearly hope it could serve as a template for a "grand bargain" later in the year that could erase perhaps $4 trillion from the deficit over the coming decade.

It includes tax hikes that are opposed by Republicans and cuts to Medicare and other entitlements that many Democrats are against.

"This is a unique opportunity and we ought to seize it," Carney said, even while saying the White House still wanted to keep working on a less ambitious "Plan B" measure to increase the debt limit even if no big plan can be reached.

That was a sign administration officials were acutely aware of the obstacles that remain to a major deal, perhaps particularly from House conservatives who adamantly oppose any new taxes. Carney said Obama spoke by phone Tuesday evening to the top four Democratic and Republican congressional leaders.

Even among Democrats, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said lawmakers had too few details about the Gang of Six plan. He said that until they have a chance to see the fine print, it will be difficult to get their caucus to focus on it.

The top Democrat in the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, reacted positively Wednesday to the new plan, saying it "has some good principles in it." At the same time, a top House GOP military hawk said it would cut defense too much.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., blasted the Gang of Six plan in a missive to his panel members, saying it would cut the Pentagon way too deeply and would unfairly curb military health and retirement benefits.

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