Debt dispute boils: Capitol's hot, inside and out

By David Espo

Associated Press

Published: Friday, July 22 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, left, and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, walk through the Capitol rotunda after meeting with Senators on the Senate floor, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Friday, July 22, 2011.

Cliff Owen, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Gridlock stubbornly held the high ground in the steamy capital Friday despite the threat of a government default in 11 days' time. Talks between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner seemed stuck in limbo, and the Democratic-controlled Senate scuttled legislation drawn to conservatives' specifications.

As most lawmakers left the sweltering city for the weekend — temperatures soared past 100 degrees and some tempers seemed close behind — there was vague talk but few details of backup plans in both houses of Congress to raise the nation's 14.3 trillion debt limit before the critical Aug. 2 deadline.

Boehner said he was "frankly not close to an agreement" with Obama in talks to cut deficits by up to $4 trillion and ease the government's ability to keep borrowing.

He spoke shortly before the Senate voted 51-46 along party lines to kill House-passed legislation. That bill would have cut spending by as much as $6 trillion over a decade and required Congress to send a constitutional amendment to balance the budget to the states for ratification — conservatives' price for raising the debt limit.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, accused Obama of "a total abdication of leadership" on the nation's debt, and said the legislation was a step toward "getting our house in order."

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., attacked the bill as a "radical plan to kill Medicare and Social Security," and said House Republicans needed to know it was dead.

"It's interfering with the negotiations between the White House and the House of Representatives, and it is without merit," he added.

Across the Capitol, Boehner rebutted.

"The House has acted. We've done our job," he said. "The Democrats who run Washington have done nothing. ... Where is their plan?"

Other Republicans said his remarks reflected the views expressed inside a closed-door meeting of the rank and file. "Our conference was loud. 'Stand firm,'" said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a leading conservative.

But Obama, seemingly more optimistic about compromise in remarks at the University of Maryland, said House Republicans who held to such views were "the only people we have left to convince" to swing behind a balanced plan that includes higher federal revenue as well as spending cuts.

The day's events underscored the straddle Boehner must perform by siding with his tea party-backed conservatives at the same time he talks compromise with the Democratic president.

Despite the harsh rhetoric on the Senate floor, aides in both parties said rejection there of the House-passed bill was a necessary step toward building support for a backup plan to avoid default in case the negotiations between the president and House GOP leaders failed.

Nor was Boehner the only leader in a tight spot.

Bipartisan negotiations stalled, at least temporarily, following a revolt on Thursday by Democrats who feared the president would agree to deep cuts in Medicare and Social Security without gaining a commitment for additional revenue.

The president met privately late Thursday with top Democratic lawmakers, and nearly 24 hours later, no additional negotiations had been announced. It was not known whether the White House and GOP officials had been in contact by phone or email.

Republicans said Obama had begun backing away from earlier commitments on spending cuts to Medicare, in particular.

Cuts in Medicare, Social Security and other benefit programs and increases in some taxes have always been the principal stumbling blocks to a deal to rein in federal deficits and clear the way for Republicans to vote for raising the debt limit.

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